Writer’s note: This is the fifth of a five-part series breaking down the potential targets for the Cavaliers with the no. 1 pick. Previous profiles: Victor Oladipo, Ben McLemore, Alex Len, Otto Porter
Since the moment that the Cavaliers won the no. 1 pick in the 2013 Draft Nerlens Noel became the top target, the guy that seemed to be the closest to a consensus for the best player in the draft. ESPN certainly thought he was going to be the top choice as they sent Andy Katz to hang out with Noel during the lottery and interviewed him right after the outcome was announced, asking him questions about what it will be like to play with Kyrie Irving.
However, over the course of the past month there have been rumors a plenty that Noel may not be the guy that’s on top of the Cavs draft board. Despite those rumors, however, many mock drafts still have Noel as the choice for Cleveland with the no. 1 pick.
There is lots to love about Noel and his game. His athleticism is as elite as elite gets. He displays that athleticism with flying dunks and skying shot-blocks. His excellent length (7’3.75” wingspan) adds to the advantages that his athleticism affords him.
When he’s planted under the rim it’s nearly impossible for driving guards to get a lay-up at the rim. He averaged 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes in his one season at Kentucky. Defense is certainly where Noel has made his claim to fame and it’s something that he takes pride in. He’s also pretty good at defending out on the perimeter due to his length and quickness. He puts his long, quick hands into action in forcing steals, of which he averaged 2.6 per 40 minutes.
On the offensive end he’s extremely raw. Everything he gets is due to his elite athleticism. He’s great in the pick-n-roll game because he’s an excellent finisher with both hands and can obviously get up to catch lobs. He’s also great getting out in transition and running the floor. He’s also a very efficient offensive player because he knows his limitations and doesn’t try things he can’t do. You’re not going to see Noel spotting up for a 15-footer because he can’t make that shot. He’s not delusional about his abilities. He knows that he’s great catching passes and finishing over top of defenders and that if he’s facing up and his defender is leaning one way that he blow by on a straight line drive. And therefore that’s all he does. That’s not meant to be a criticism at all. Far too often big guys at that age are trying to do things they aren’t good at which results in turnovers and bad shots. To Noel’s credit he shot 59% last year and had a 27.7 PER.
While the positives and the upside of Noel’s game are great, the negatives are plenty.
While it’s a positive that he plays conservatively with his game offensively, it can’t be missed that he does so because he can’t do anything. He has no post game. He has no face-up game save for the straight-line drive as was mentioned previously. He can’t shoot. He doesn’t want to draw fouls because he’s only a 52.9% free throw shooter (and watching his stroke it’s almost surprising that it’s that high). He can’t create his own shot. He’s not a strong dribbler. He’s simply not an offensive player save for pick-n-rolls and lobs. When double-teamed in the post he turns it over 21.4% of the time. You’d like to think that he’ll develop in those areas, but there’s no proof to this point that he has anything to build on. His coaches in the pros will be starting from scratch with his offensive game. And the pros isn’t really where you want to be doing that.
Noel is a tremendous shot-blocker and an intimidating presence for driving guards who always have to be aware that the proverbial eraser is looming under the basket. But that’s about it for his defense in my opinion. It’s well documented that Noel weighed in at the combine at a shockingly skinny 206 lbs. He claims that he’s up to 216 lbs. already and that he’ll be up 230 lbs. by the time he’s ready to play…as if that’s news that should quell concerns about his weight issues. In college, against players who are hardly the well-formed men that there is in the NBA, he failed continually to hold his position in the post. He constantly gets banged around. The fact that he was able to average 11.9 rebounds per 40 minutes is a true testament to his athleticism and natural rebounding ability because with his limited girth he struggles to hold box-out position.
Noel is an extremely gifted athlete that uses his physical abilities to their fullest with shot blocking and steals, but that’s where it all ends. It’s hard for me to project him as a center in the NBA. He’ll probably be better served playing the 4 so he won’t have to bang down low with centers like Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Roy Hibbert. Guarding power forwards will allow Noel to showcase his great lateral quickness and fast hands in passing lanes out on the perimeter. But if he’s being drawn away from the hoop it also negates his best talent: shot blocking. It’s hard to be the eraser under the rim if your man is drawing you out to the perimeter.
There’s a strong chance that when he gets to the NBA that Noel is going to have a really hard time doing the things that made him so special in college. His lack of size will be a detriment as he’ll no longer be taller than everyone he’s playing against. Finishing at the rim through contact, something he didn’t do well in college, only gets harder in the pros…not to mention that there’s just going to be more contact in general in the NBA.
Noel thrived in college at poking away the ball from weaker players. While he may still be able to use his quick hands to do some of that, the NBA players will pick up on it and start using Noel’s propensity to gamble for steals against him.
And of course, it’s taken us a while to get to it, but let’s not just glance over the fact that Noel has a torn ACL. I realize that medical science has improved such that players like Adrien Peterson have come back after only a few months and been better than ever. But the bigger question is going to be will Noel have confidence in that knee when he comes back? We all saw with Derrick Rose, who had been cleared to play for months but never got on the court because he claimed it just didn’t feel right. Everything Noel does hinges on his ability to run and leap and explode. If his knee is compromised in any way, or if he mentally isn’t confident in it, then his game will suffer greatly.
If Chris Grant and the Cavs are able to look past all of the foibles in Noel’s game and decide to bet on upside by taking him with the no. 1 pick, he could fit very nicely with the group that’s currently constructed.
It’s impossible to deny that both Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are good at pick-n-roll offense, which also just so happens to be Noel’s forte. That could be a thing of beauty to watch as both Kyrie and Dion, while gifted finishers in their own right are also very willing passers. The Cavs last season didn’t have a leaper like Noel to run the pick-n-roll with. Those lob passes could become something to behold. The other area of great intrigue is the fast break/transition game. Again, Noel would be great running the floor with those guards.
Defensively is where I have a harder time projecting him with the Cavs. It’s easy to say that you just stick him under the hoop and then have Kyrie and Dion funnel their man (a skill that they’re both great at) into the lane to get swatted by Noel’s freakishly long arms. That’s all sexy and what not but I’m not sure that it’s grounded in reality. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that Noel can play center in the NBA. So if he’s playing power forward he’s going to be drawn away from the hoop, neutralizing his shot-blocking presence. Additionally that would force Tristan Thompson to play the center position where he’ll be giving up 5-6 inches on a nightly basis.
I won’t throw a fit or decry Chris Grant if they choose Noel on Thursday night. But I’m still far from being enamored with him as a player as many like the guys over at Fear the Sword are. There are just too many weaknesses and too many bold projections for me to feel good about taking him no. 1 when there are arguably better and safer options out there.Follow @ClevelandFlack