One on One with Chris Dortch: Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel

Nerlens Noel was doomed the second he signed with Kentucky last spring, doomed to inevitable comparisons to Anthony Davis, who put together one of the greatest seasons in NCAA history in leading the Wildcats to the 2012 national championship.

But those comparisons are neither fair nor justified. Nerlens Noel is no Anthony Davis, and chances are he never will be.

Recall the unique circumstances under which Davis acquired his remarkable skill set. A 6-foot-2 shooting guard as a sophomore in high school, good enough to perhaps earn a mid-major level scholarship, Davis grew eight inches the summer before his junior season. He retained his mobility, the ability to make 3-pointers, pass, and put the ball on the floor to elude defenders, and he gained, along with that added height, a 7-3 wingspan. That made him a commodity coveted by every power conference school in the country, a true inside-outside player who could score in a variety of ways and became a fearsome shot blocker.

After he got the hang of the college game, Davis’ once-in-a-generation package of skills allowed him to become the most decorated player in history. He swept the major awards (national player of the year, national defensive player of the year, national freshman of the year). He was the most outstanding player at the Final Four. Post college, he was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and also earned an Olympic gold medal playing for Team USA in London.

Nerlens Noel won’t be able to touch Davis’ resume, but like Davis before him, Noel has a chance to be the top pick in the NBA Draft one day. That’s because he’s a good player who’s getting better every day, all because early in life, he had a mature understanding of his own physical gifts, and how he might best utilize them.


Leaning toward defense

“It was my freshman year of high school,” Noel said. “Defense was something I was better at. I liked it. My goal was to lead my team defensively.”

Like Davis, Noel had tools that allowed him to become a great shot blocker. He topped out at 6-10, with a 7-4 wingspan, and then there’s that stunning jumping ability. “He’s the quickest off the floor of any big kid I’ve seen in 15 years as an analyst for ESPN,” said Jimmy Dykes, whose focus for the network is on the Southeastern Conference.

“His ability to jump high and jump quickly, and then jump again, are what stand out to me,” said Mike DeCourcy, college basketball columnist for The Sporting News. “There have been few players anywhere near him.”

But if Noel were a case study in a college sociology class, research would find that, in addition to the nature part of his equation—the long arms, the quick leap—there is equal parts nurture that made him the player he is today. It started in the Noel family home, when young Nerlens, in not-so-friendly pickup games, did battle with two older brothers, 6-4, 200-pound Jim and 6-3, 210-pound Rodman, both of whom went on to play college football (at Boston College and NC State, respectively).

“They were a big help,” Noel said. “Whenever we played in the backyard, they would never give me a call. They were always rougher than me, and at the time a lot bigger. They helped me mature and be tough. I’ve been playing against bigger, more physical guys my whole life.”

An impeccable role model

In addition to his brothers, Noel had another role model, too. In an age were young players know little or nothing about the game’s history, Noel, from Everett, Mass., has not only heard of Boston Celtics Hall of Famer and shot blocker extraordinaire Bill Russell, he studied him. Which is to say, he learned at an early age that blocking shots into the stands didn’t earn him any extra style points. Russell was a master at turning back shots that were recovered by his teammates, which invariably led to easy baskets on the other end of the floor.

Noel has been slowly mastering that skill as well.

“He’s really come a long way from the beginning of the year to now,” Kentucky assistant coach John Robic said. “Early on, he left his feet too early, and the opponent knew it. Now, he’s staying down and being patient.

“He’s not necessarily trying to block his own player’s shot as much as he is serving as a secondary defender, coming from the weak side. That’s what Anthony was so good at. Nerlens has improved over the course of the year as a shot blocker, which is rare.”

That opinion is shared by outside observers as well.

“It’s apparent Noel is in the process of perfecting the art of shot blocking,” said Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and former Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico head coach. “He’s staying on his feet more. His timing’s better. He’s adjusted to the fact that college post players try to get into a shot blocker’s body much more than he saw in high school.”

That much was apparent last week, when Noel terrorized Ole Miss with 12 blocked shots, six of them after he had drawn his fourth foul. Those 12 blocks shattered the Kentucky record, three more than the previous mark held by Sam Bowie and Andre Riddick, four more than the best single-game total racked up by Davis.

“[Noel] was the difference in the game,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said after the carnage ended. “We all would agree with that. He is an incredible defensive presence.”

More impressive than Noel’s number of blocks, or the number of blocks with four fouls on him, was this: seven of them, ala his role model Bill Russell, were recovered by Kentucky. That number is significant because it provides an opportunity to legitimately compare Davis and Noel.

But it’s going to take a new barometer to do it.

Necessity the mother of invention

Advanced statistics are gaining traction in college basketball. Numbers guru Ken Pomeroy and others have championed them for years. Besides the obvious—offensive and defensive efficiency, offensive rebounding percentage, effective field-goal percentage—Pomeroy tracks what he calls block percentage. But for the purpose of seeing who is the better shot blocker, Noel or Davis, a new statistic is in order.

Call it effective block percentage.

We arrive at EBP, as it shall henceforth be known, with a simple formula. Or rather, the formula is simple, but compiling the data is not. EPB is the number of a player’s blocked shots that are recovered in bounds by his team divided by the total number of blocks.

Watching every blocked shot by Noel (102 to date) and Davis (an NCAA freshman record 186 last season) is a bit like watching a movie you already know how it ends—Titanic, for example. Unsuspecting offensive players dribble in the vicinity of Davis or Noel, take what they think is an uncontested shot, and the next thing they know, the shot has been redirected, sometimes into the stands, but often back to a Kentucky player.

Davis blocked a surprising number of shots on the perimeter. Noel gets more of his in his office, i.e. the paint, but, like Robic said, as the season as progressed, he’s rejecting an increasing number of shots out of his area.

The final analysis

Now for the EBP numbers. Given that this is a new statistic, we can set the ground rules. A 33-percent EBP is solid; it means that one third of a player’s blocked shots are recovered by his own team. Forty percent is good. And anything approaching or surpassing 50 percent, well, that’s off the charts.

Of Davis’ 186 blocks last season, 99 were kept in play and hauled in by either him or a teammate. His high game was seven (out of eight blocks against St. John’s). He also had five against Louisville and LSU and four in several games, most notably against Kansas in the NCAA finals.

It all adds up to an EBP of 53 percent.

So far, 48 of Noel’s 102 blocks have been recovered by Kentucky. That’s an EBP of 47 percent.

Does this make Davis the more effective shot blocker? Not yet. The debate continues with this food for thought, taken from a more traditional measuring stick of a player’s performance, the season box score.

Last season, through 22 games, nine of them in the SEC, Davis blocked 101 shots overall, 49 in league play. Through 22 and nine this season, Noel’s totals are 102 and 56.

No less an expert than Kentucky coach John Calipari, who always seems to have a history-making shot blocker on his roster, dating back to Marcus Camby at UMass, knows Noel is beginning to take his game to another level.

“He is getting better and better,” Calipari said. “Everyone that sees him says he’s a way better player, and I agree.”