All the evidence points to Nerlens Noel becoming a game-changing defender in the NBA.
This shouldn’t surprise to anybody, of course. His potential on that end was the primary reason why he was a consensus no. 1 pick before tearing his ACL while working for Kentucky. But the 6-foot-11, 228-pound power forward has lived up to the hype in the summer league, and now the preseason. His five blocks and four steals through three games suggest he’s a future box score all-star. That, combined with his athleticism and court sense — he moves around in a seemingly effortless manner — could make him a perennial All-Defensive Team candidate.
In a limited sample of meaningless competition, Noel has demonstrated he can do it all.
Close out on a wide-open shooter after a blown defensive rotation? Check.
Stop a side screen-and-roll play, and recover in time to prevent an attack? Sure, why not.
Stop two consecutive pick-and-roll actions and then cut off a drive to the rim, all in the same play? Wait, what?
That play from that last clip is particularly terrifying. Noel’s ability to shut down several actions in a single play gives him glaring similarities to players such as Serge Ibaka, fellow Wildcat Anthony Davis, and yes, even a young Kevin Garnett. In Philadelphia’s defensive system, which relies on help defense and athletic ability, the hi-top fade could be just what the doctor ordered.
Noel’s mobility may allow Brett Brown to experiment with the defense too. Philadelphia zoned up on the majority of its pick-and-roll coverage last season, but would mix it up from time to time when the personnel allowed. Brown has already had Noel aggressively trap pick-and-rolls after icing screens into the corners on a few occasions, where his freakish wingspan has terrorized ball handlers.
And if that isn’t enough, Noel has shown some early signs that he may be agile enough to keep up with smaller wing players, which would allow him to switch on pick-and-rolls. There will be no solution to the LeBron James-Kevin Love-Kyrie Irving problem, but having an athletic shot-blocker that can defend multiple positions will certainly ease the pain.
Just a reminder: Noel is only 20 years old. He still can’t purchase alcohol legally. Yet he already seems capable of defending in a way that only a handful of players can. Now let’s not go overboard; Noel won’t be a candidate for 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll have to deal with the mental and physical hurdles that all rookies do; he’s already looked to be a bit jumpy or foul-prone at times, and several times he’s lost track of his man as a result of ball-watching.
But these are minor roadblocks that the Sixers rookie has all the tools to overcome. Noel, if healthy, has as good a chance as anyone of becoming an elite defender. Even in his rawest form, he’s a defensive upgrade over the Sixers bigs of yesteryear.