Another day, another top player commits to the Kentucky Wildcats. That's how it's been around here for the last three years, and even though I know a lot of you out in the Big Blue Nation are just waiting for the time when John Calipari fails to bring home a top-ranked recruiting class, that isn't about to happen this year.
Calipari has consistently appealed to the cream of the crop of the national high-school scene, and he now moves even more comfortably in that arena with a newly-minted NCAA Tournament championship swag. Calipari amazed even some of his most vehement detractors by winning the NCAA Tournament this year with three freshman and two sophomore starters. If other coaches didn't hate to see him show up in the gym where they are, they really do now, because it likely means that highly-touted prospect they have been recruiting for so long has been re-tasked to Kentucky.
So it is with Nerlens Noel. All the Twitter chatter yesterday pointed to a big upset, suggesting that Noel was bound for John Thompson III's Georgetown Hoyas. The chatter was that some teammate or other of Noel's at New Hampshire's Tilton School had intimated that the flat top would be on the Georgetown hilltop next year.
What was weird about that is how many people bought it lock, stock and barrel. If we here at Kentucky learned anything from the recruitment of Patrick Patterson lo, those dark 5 years ago, we learned to never trust what "they" say. Back then, "they" were all sure that Patterson was Florida Gators bound with his erstwhile bestest buddy, Jai Lucas, having recently committed to Billy "The Kid" Donovan. "They" just knew that Patterson would rather be in sunny Gainesville than in chilly Lexington with then first-year Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.
Turns out, "they" never had a clue, and it wasn't really that close. From that episode, most Kentucky fans learned to distrust "them," especially about last-minute changes of heart for players that held their cards close to the vest. Now Hoya fans know what UK fans have known for a while - "they" usually don't know crap when "they" are Johnny-come-latelys.
So what does this new commitment mean for next year's team? Well, most people know that Noel is a shot blocker, and many have placed him in the same category as Anthony Davis in that skill. I cannot say for sure if he's that good, or even better -- there are things in his game that argue for both. Noel is as explosive an athlete as you will ever see for a kid his size. He doesn't have the smooth gracefulness of Davis; Noel is more abrupt. He gets off the floor as quickly as any player I have seen in a while, including Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which is really saying something. He is even more athletic than Davis, and has the same 7'4" wingspan according to reports.
The trouble is that being quick of the floor is great when it comes to rebounding, but it can be a curse when it comes to shot-blocking. Anthony Davis learned early how to measure his jumps, and to jump only when he had a chance to block without fouling. Noel will have a tougher time with this, because his instinct is to spring like a panther, and he really can.
Working in Noel's favor is the fact that unlike almost every great shot blocker I have ever seen, he uses both hands to block shots. Davis virtually never used his left, but Noel does, and that is a great advantage if you do it at the right time, because many shot-blocking fouls occur when you try to block a left-handed shot with the right hand.
One thing Noel does not possess is the incredible hands of Davis. Noels hands are fine, for a big man, but they aren't guards hands like Anthony Davis has. That's one of the things that makes Davis such a transformational player, along with his remarkable, plastic-man body control. Noel is much less flexible than Davis, but he is stronger coming into college as well.
Finally, there is Noel's versatility. Noel handles the ball surprisingly well for a big man. No, not like Davis, Davis had guard skills first, but still very good. He can easily move between the 4 and the 5, freeing up Calipari to recruit Alex Oriakhi, who much prefers playing in the pivot. But Noel does not have a true face-up game right now, and darn sure won't be shooting threes, so he's not ideally suited for the Dribble Drive Motion, He is, however, ideally suited for the pick and roll that UK ran with Davis all year.
In short, you can think of him, right now at least, as a very serviceable replacement for Davis. He will be better in some areas, not as good in others, but his impact will be determined, in large part, by who Calipari surrounds him with. Right now, assuming Doron Lamb declares for the draft, Kentucky needs more depth in perimeter shooting.
But Noel will likely provide at least a reasonable facsimile of the one-man zone that Davis allowed Kentucky to play this year, and that will make the Wildcats a very dangerous team next year.