No doubt the most highly contested debate amongst Cavaliers fans and bloggers is whether Chris Grant should select Nerlens Noel or Alex Len with the no. 1 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
Since the start of the process it seemed like Noel was the closest thing to a consensus for the top pick. In fact, in my first piece after the Cavs won the lottery I didn’t even have Len on my radar. However, over the course of the process Len has looked more and more like a viable option for the top pick. As I did my own research I became very intrigued in him as a prospect.
So, only two days away from the draft, we thought it would be a good idea to compare the top two centers in this draft. We’ll break down 14 factors and try to come to a final decision on who will be the better pro. If I do say so myself, it’s basically an infallible process that can be taken as gospel.
Noel stands 6’10” without shoes with a 7’3” wingspan. His weight is certainly an issue as he weighed in at only 206 lbs. at the combine. He supposedly played at 225 lbs. during the season and as he continues to recover from his ACL injury he’ll probably keep putting weight back on.
Len is 7’1” with a 7’3” wingspan as well. He weighed 255 lbs. during the season and recognizes that he needs to put on more weight to bang with the bigs in the pros.
Both players have excellent length that helps them to challenge shots around the rim. The difference between them is obviously their weight and general size. Len has much more of a traditional build that we’ve seen from past great NBA centers. He also has the frame (wider shoulders and hips) that is more conducive to putting on weight. When you look at Noel the only guy that I can think of who had a great NBA career while looking like a stick was Dikembe Mutombo. If you could pick anatomies between the two, it’s obvious that you’d rather have Len.
This is Noel’s biggest advantage in this debate. There isn’t another player in this draft who possesses the elite, incredible, explosive athletic ability that Noel does. He’s fast, quick, and can jump out of the gym. I’d keep going, but if you’ve followed any draft coverage at all you know how freakishly athletic Noel is.
What you might not be aware of is that Len is strikingly athletic in his own right. He’s quick on his feet, has great balance, is a great leaper, and can throw down incredible dunks with the best of them. He doesn’t have anywhere near the end to end speed that Noel does though.
In the end, the athleticism debate isn’t a debate at all.
Neither player is a great post defender at this point. Both struggle at times to hold their position and be strong against what is more often than not a smaller offensive player. Noel’s struggled slightly more than Len in this area due to his slight frame. He just haven’t the body to be strong in the post right now.
Len’s problems, while partially due to his size, are more about inexperience. He freely offers that before coming to the states that he didn’t do much down on the block because in Europe the bigs often like to play like guards out on the perimeter.
This is Noel’s claim to fame. He has an innate ability to block shots that can’t necessarily be taught. While it has a lot to do with his long arms and leaping ability it goes beyond that. Some guys just have a knack for blocking shots and Noel has it, averaging 5.5 per 40 minutes. What’s even more impressive is that Noel has shown that he can block shots out on the perimeter as well as in the paint.
Len is also very strong at protecting the rim against driving guards. Like Noel, just by virtue of the fact that he’s super tall with really long arms helps. Per 40 minutes he averaged 4.0 blocks his freshmen year and 3.1 his sophomore year. The numbers dipped a bit because opposing teams simply stopped driving to the hoop when he was in the game. Len is a strong shot-blocker in his own right, but he’s not in the same league at Noel. No one is really.
This is all about projecting forward as centers in the NBA. This is where I have hard time with Noel. Because of his size he is going to have a real tough time being strong in the post against opposing centers who are the same height as him but weigh 50 and 60 pounds more.
Think about how much trouble Tyler Zeller had last year defending in the post. He weighs 250 lbs., a good 30 more than Noel. In college Zeller wasn’t necessarily known as a great defensive player, but because of his size and length he had an impact in the paint. That impact was nowhere to be seen last year. He couldn’t alter shots at the rim because he couldn’t hold position down low against bigger guys. His size also hurt him in rebounding where he was a drop from 13.6 to 8.6 rebounds per 40 minutes.
Like it or not, Noel’s slight frame and low weight is going to be a real issue in the NBA if teams want him to play center. Ultimately I think he’ll need to play power forward, like what New Orleans did with Anthony Davis last year in his rookie season. Noel will be a fine defender at the 4 spot because he won’t be asked to bang as much down low. He can showcase his good lateral quickness and ability to bother jump shots. But if he’s playing out on the perimeter he can’t be the rim protector that he was in college.
Len’s skill set, along with his solid build, projects him to be a much better NBA center on defense. Once he learns a little more about post positioning and how to use his body I think he can be a real presence. He’s great at hedging on screens and getting back to his man for a guy his size. He has all the tools to be a great defensive center in the NBA.
Both players have a real nose for the ball while rebounding, averaging an identical 11.9 rebounds per 40 minutes. Len gets his mostly through establishing strong block outs and then using his length. Noel doesn’t often get good box outs but because he’s such a great athlete and has such a knack for knowing where the ball is going he’s able to be a very productive rebounder none the less.
Unfortunately for Noel fans, this is where the two begin to diverge. Noel possesses no post moves. Not a one. His only hope for scoring out of the post is like this move where ducks his head down and tries to curl around and flip the ball toward the hoop. His footwork is atrocious. He doesn’t pivot right. He doesn’t have a drop step. He can’t establish good post position in the first place. He also has very bad hands when receiving passes into the post. And when he’s doubled he turns it over 20% of the time. But more than anything else, it’s just so ugly. There’s no way anyone can look at Noel’s post game and make the argument that they think he’ll develop one given the sprawling mess that he is right now. It doesn’t mean he can’t develop, it just means that most guys who go into the NBA with nothing like Noel is right now, tend to stay that way.
Len, on the other hand, despite only playing down on the block for less than two years and only having one offseason of coaching in America, already has all the moves in his arsenal. He needs to refine them and learn when to use which one and then develop counter-moves, but the skills are all there. He plays under control and handles double-teams very well for a young inexperienced big. Given the dearth of centers in the NBA who you feel comfortable throwing it to in the post, Len’s future in the NBA is very bright offensively.
Again, Noel doesn’t do much here. As I wrote before, it’s too his credit that he doesn’t push his offensive game beyond his abilities. He can’t do much, therefore he doesn’t. He’s not a threat to shoot when facing up but he does have a nice straight-line drive.
The face-up game was Len specialty when he came over to the States from the Ukraine two years ago. Because he does have a pretty good jump shot it forces defenders to play his closer and opens up driving opportunities. He has great footwork and uses the pump fake well. I can’t express how impressed I am that a guy at his age already has both a post and midrange game.
PICK N ROLL GAME
This is a tough one to call. Both guys were made to run the pick and roll because of their athleticism. They both set solid screens up top and roll hard to the hoop where they’re always looking for the ball and are able to finish after getting a bounce pass or a lob. This one’s too close to call.
FINISHING AROUND THE RIM
Both guys are great around the rim. Noel probably has better touch and he can use both hands so well. Len’s left hand isn’t great but he still finishes well. Len is better at finishing through contact than Noel, who shies away from it at times and generally just doesn’t handle it well.
We won’t spend long on this one. Noel didn’t attempt a shot outside 10-12 feet and shot only 52.9% from the free throw line. Not to mention that his stroke makes me throw up a little in my mouth every time I see it.
Len has a great looking shooting stroke with perfect form and follow-through. He has range out to 18 feet and even made a three pointer last season. He shot 68.6% from the free throw line and most people think that will only good up. His shot looks too good to be that low. Even if it never improves from that percentage, however, it’s still better than most bigs in the pros.
It’s well document that both players have not been able to work out for team because of injuries. Noel is recovering from a torn ACL, Len from a stress fracture in his ankle. Both are problematic and worthy of concern. Stress fractures often re-occur and there’s a history of bigs in the NBA who struggle with it. The ACL for a player who relies on his athleticism to get him everything he has is also a huge deal. So much of it will be how he comes back mentally and if he’s able to rely on it to do the things that got him to this point. I’m not a doctor and I don’t have the answers to either of these questions. There’s a chance that neither guy will be bothered by these injuries ever again in their life and this argument will be worthless. But there’s a chance that they’ll be bothered by these issues for their entire careers and they’ll never live up to their potential
HEAD TO HEAD
It’s hard to make any sort of a case for Noel in their sole head-to-head meeting save to say that it was in his first college game. Len dominated Noel on the court and on the stat sheet, pouring in 23 points with 12 rebounds, 7 offensive, and 4 blocks. Noel did have 9 rebounds and 3 blocks but he only managed 4 points.
BY THE NUMBERS (per 40 minutes, pace adjusted)
It’s no surprise that Len has the edge in points at 17.5 to 12.8. He also has the edge in points per possession (1.15 to 1.07). They’re about even in rebounds with Noel grabbing 11.6 to Len’s 11.5.
Noel has the big edge in shot blocking (5.4 to 3.0) and steals (2.6 to 0.3). True shooting percentage is a great stat to evaluate the overall efficiency of a player taking into account not only their field goal percentage but three pointers and free throws as well. Noel figures out just slightly better with a 0.58 TS% compared to Len’s 0.57 TS%. Finally, Noel has the edge over Len in PER at 27.7 to 24.7.
Overall the stats aren’t too divergent. Len has the edge on offense while Noel has it on defense. But due to the PER disparity we’ll give a slight edge to Noel.
If you want a final count on our arbitrary categories, Len came out with 7, Noel with 3, and 4 where they were even. I didn’t watch much college basketball live this season and I don’t think I caught a single Maryland game, so Len wasn’t on my radar till late. I did watch a hand-full of Kentucky games and I don’t know if I just caught all his bad games but Noel never really impressed me much. I’ve tried over the past month to really understand what others see in his game but I just don’t for whatever reason.
I do with Len. Once I started my research I fell in love with his offensive ability, coupled with his size and athleticism. His team was terrible around him which accounts for why his numbers aren’t as jaw-dropping as you might think given his ability. The only thing that gives me any pause whatsoever about Len is the stress fracture. If it weren’t for that I’d be so bullish on him that I wouldn’t listen to any other options.
With Noel there’s just too much projection for to feel good about using the no. 1 pick on him. With him it’s all about the if’s. Noel will be a great player if he doesn’t have any more knee issues…if he bulks up…if he strengthens his hands…if he gets a post game…if he learns to shoot…if if if if if…
With Len you can see already the whole package. He has to refine it all and hone those skills but they’re all there. You don’t have to hope that they’ll show up.
With these super athletic raw bigs coming out of college you always assume that they’ll develop. But more often than not they don’t. For as great and spectacular as Blake Griffin is, he still hasn’t developed much of a post game, he still can’t reliably shoot, he doesn’t defend the post well. He’s a really good player but he’s not transcendent.
Noel doesn’t have coming in what Griffin had. There’s a chance that he’ll develop into a superstar player. But that’s not a bet I’m willing to make. I’m putting my money on Alex Len.