Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats are struggling but Nerlens Noel is shining

Nerlens Noel throws down against Vanderbilt. - Frederick Breedon

The Wildcats (12-6, 3-2 SEC) are struggling by UK standards but freshman big man Nerlens Noel has been shining.

Nerlens Noel came to the University of Kentucky with unfair expectations. He’s long, he’s lanky, he’s quick off his feet, he has great defensive instincts and he protects the paint with a vengeance. The Wildcats (12-6, 3-2 SEC) are struggling by UK standards but freshman big man Nerlens Noel has been shining. Sounds familiar to Wildcat fans who watched a similar player lead a young group of players to a national championship just a year ago.

But let’s be clear: Noel and Anthony Davis are similar – that’s it.

Davis was very composed both offensively and defensively. On offense he brought a polished combination of hook shots in the post, spot up mid range jumpers and ball handling.

What Nerlens brings is a relentless, intense, high-energy style of basketball, especially on the defensive end. He often lurks in the paint looking for opportunities to shut down anyone drives to the rim, much like Davis did last year.

But where he differs from Davis on the defensive end is in his anticipation in the passing lane. Noel is averaging 2.5 steals per game which is second best in the SEC and 13th in the nation. It’s also the highest per game average from any forward or center in the nation. When Noel steals the ball he’s very good at either taking the ball in transition himself (if he gets the steal near the top of the key) or quickly throwing an outlet pass for an easy bucket.

Noel has the second best defensive rating in the nation, giving up 75.3 points per 100 possessions according to Basketball-Reference. That statistic is actually a full five points better than Davis’ 80.3 last year.

Athletically, Noel’s one of the scariest NBA prospects to come through college basketball in a long time. From baseline-to-baseline he might be the third fastest player on UK behind Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin. But what’s really impressive about Noel’s athleticism is his lateral quickness.

In this video you can really see just how quick Nerlens goes to a spot on the floor then recovers to block a shot. The block at 3:45 is one of the most impressive defensive plays of the season.

It’s a side pick and roll play which is usually used to space the floor and take away help side defense. Goodwin fights over the screen which is fundamental by John Calipari standards. Noel slides over to cut off the ball handler from making a move to the basket while he waits for Goodwin to catch up. Julius Mays is supposed to slide under the basket and help with the roll man but instead he lingers with the corner shooter. But it doesn’t matter. Noel has the wherewithal to turn once the ball handler makes the pass to the roll man and block the shot anyways. If you watch that clip a few times you’ll notice that Noel actually covers almost a whole half side of the floor. That’s the combination of instinct and athleticism that Noel is bringing to UK and it’s exactly what NBA scouts drool over when they watch the guy play basketball.

But perhaps Noel’s best attribute and what he’s helped UK with the most is the high-motor he’s brought. Nerlens is the heart and soul of this team. There will be stretches of the game where Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress disappear and Goodwin hits a cold streak. But Noel doesn’t disappear. He plays with 110 percent relentless effort for all 31.4 minutes he plays a game.

However, I’m not here to tell you that Noel is as good as Anthony Davis or that he will ever be, and to ask him to be so is unfair and somewhat unethical. What I’m here to tell you is that Nerlens is who he is – an athletic freak with an unstoppable motor – and he’s found his niche on this UK Wildcat team.

He has his areas to improve on, like any other freshman basketball player. His free throw shooting could use a boost – he showed great flashes at the Texas A&M game when he knocked down 7-of-8. He’s also turning the ball over at an alarming rate -- 16.2% of his possessions. But both of those aspects of his game have the potential to improve over time.

Nerlens Noel came to UK with many expecting he would be the next Anthony Davis, but he will leave having become the first Nerlens Noel.

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