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Injury slows Noel, but may be no stopping shot-block specialist

POSTED: Feb 14, 2013 10:04 AM ET

By Chris Dortch

BY Chris Dortch


Through early February, Nerlens Noel was averaging more than six blocks a game.

Nerlens Noel won't be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.

That potential honor was wrested away from him in a game at Florida on Tuesday night when, trying to make one of the hustle plays he has become known for by chasing down Florida guard Mike Rosario and preventing him from an easy layup, Noel landed awkwardly and tore the ACL in his left knee.

Noel will undergo surgery in two to three weeks and his recovery time is expected to be up to 6-8 months. He'll have a decision to make about whether to declare for the Draft or stay in school. So, finally, the comparisons to former Kentucky star Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft, will cease -- for now at least.

It was inevitable, when Noel announced last spring that he would play for Kentucky, that those comparisons would follow him around like a low-rent private investigator. It's just too easy.

Davis played for John Calipari at Kentucky. Davis is a long, lean, shot blocker, just like Noel. Davis is a multi-skilled offensive player.

No, wait a minute. That's where the comparisons end.

Nerlens Noel is no Anthony Davis, at least on that other end of the floor. The folks who get paid to make those determinations -- NBA scouts, player personnel directors and general managers -- know that. Noel knows it, too. And he's fine with it.

That's because Noel figured out at an early age what his gifts were going to be. He didn't have his eventual 7-foot-4 wingspan at age 14, or the pogo stick, menacing quick first jump he does now. But he had an idea of what his physical gifts might be, and he quickly adopted the mindset to go along with them.

"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."

By contrast, recall the story of Davis. As a sophomore at a Chicago high school, he was a 6-foot-2, 3-point shooting guard who probably would have earned a Division I scholarship had he stayed a 6-foot-2, 3-point shooting guard. But an amazing thing happened during the summer before Davis' junior season. He grew eight inches while retaining his guard skills and thus become a load for opposing defenses, in high school and at Kentucky. He's showing glimpses of his offensive skills now in the NBA.

The bonus that came along with Davis' newfound long limbs was the ability to block shots. Last season at Kentucky he set an NCAA freshman record (186). But Davis also made 3-pointers and beat defenders off the dribble and down the floor in transition. That package of skills, seldom seen at any level, allowed him to sweep the three major awards in college basketball (national player of the year, freshman of the year, defensive player of the year), lead Kentucky to the national championship and become the No. 1 pick in the Draft.

At this point, it is again appropriate to point out that Nerlens Noel is not the next Anthony Davis. A more apt comparison might be ... Bill Russell?

Russell made defense and shot-blocking at a high level his calling card. So, eventually, will Noel.

Mike DeCourcy, who covers college basketball for The Sporting News and understands the game as well as any journalist, made the Russell comparison on Twitter recently after Noel blocked 12 shots against Ole Miss, half of them after he drew his fourth foul. Seven of those blocks -- and here's where the Russell comparison comes in -- were kept in bounds and retrieved by a Kentucky player.

No one did that better than Bill Russell. And Noel is surprisingly adept at it, too.

DeCourcy was asked to elaborate on his tweet.

"His ability to jump high and jump quickly, and then jump again is what stands out to me," DeCourcy said. "There have been very few players that were anywhere near him. That's one of the reasons I reached out to Russell. I'm not sure he had the leaping ability [of Noel]. But relative to the time and the way the game was played then, I think he had a similar effect."

When told about that comment, Noel had a one-word response.

"Wow," he said.

Noel grew up in Everett, Mass., where he surely would have heard of the legend of Bill Russell. But not only does Noel know who Russell is and respect what he accomplished, he has studied the man. He's proud to even be mentioned in the same sentence.

"That's a crazy comparison," Noel said. "He's an all-time great, one of the best to ever play the game. I'm humbled to be compared to him in any type of way."

Noel may have fostered those comparisons by studying Russell.

"Sometimes I'd be home, and I'd watch these old documentaries [about the Celtics and Russell]," Noel said. "He studied the players he was guarding, knew their tendencies. And when he blocked a shot, he would always try to keep it in bounds and start a fast break of something."

Fans of a certain age may appreciate the Russell association. But for now, Noel is stuck getting compared to Anthony Davis. So let's go with that.

Noel's biggest weakness has been free-throw shooting it was 51 percent through games of Feb. 5. His second-biggest weakness, especially as it relates to the NBA, is his frame. Davis was slender, Noel even more so.

Still, defensively, Noel stacks up with Davis. Shot-blocking isn't his only strength. Just before his injury, he was the only player in the country to be ranked among the top 25 in blocks and steals, and the only player to lead his conference in both categories.

Davis is probably better blocking shots from the weak side and on the perimeter. Noel is better one-on-one, where he can face down his man, has the patience and the quick leap to be the second player off the floor, and then tap the shot away, often to a teammate.

Here's the final word. Remember that Davis set an NCAA record with 186 blocks. Through Feb. 5, Noel blocked 102 and was terrorizing the Southeastern Conference with an average of 6.2 per game, on pace to top Davis' record.

The injury put an end to that chase and any chance Noel had at being the No. 1 pick in the 2013 Draft. But, as he vowed on Twitter shortly after his season ended, "Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback!"

The comparisons to Davis may have ended. But we haven't heard the last of Nerlens Noel.

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.

You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.