If you’ve been paying attention to the Sixers lately, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the all-around improved play of Nerlens Noel. Since the NBA trade deadline (and the departure of Michael Carter-Williams) Noel has taken giant steps in his development, on both ends of the floor. In his last 10 games, #4 is averaging 11.4 ppg.; 10.6 rpg.; 2.2 bpg. and 2.7 spg., all while shooting 43% from the field. With each passing game he looks less and less like the raw, out-of-place player he often resembled early on in the season.
Many expected Noel to be good, even dominant, defensively, but it’s safe to say that few expected him to be this good this quickly.
Aftre the jump, I’ll take a look at just how good Noel has been since the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend festivities in New York concluded.
Noel is currently the only player in the entire NBA to have over 100 blocks and 100 steals so far this season, and on Wednesday night he became the first center since Hakeem in 1988 to record four straight games with 4+ steals. He is sixth League-wide in total blocks, as he has become extremely adept at sliding over from the weak side to challenge a driving ball-handler. His ability to seamlessly switch onto a perimeter player is arguably even more impressive, as very rarely do you see a player of Noel’s stature possess such quick hands on the perimeter and the ability to spark a break.
He is well on his way to becoming an elite rim protector, currently holding opponents to 45% shooting at the rim; right on par with some of the game’s other great post players. In the Sixers win over the Hawks last Saturday, Nole became the first rookie since Shaq to record 11+ points, 17+ rebounds, and 5+ steals in a single game. In short, Noel is already among the game’s best defensive players, and he is only a 20-year old rookie. Is there any doubt that this cat is going to contend for multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards?
It’s not just on the defensive side of the ball where Noel’s game is growing however. The former Kentucky Wildcat has worked hard to develop his offense into something serviceable, and the results of his work have been evident on-court. Noel’s scoring has increased from 7.7 points per game in December to 8.7 points per in January to 10.7 in February/March. Noel looks increasingly confident with the ball on the offensive end, using a dribble to take the ball to the basket, pulling up for jumpers, and even dunking on defenders. He is athletic enough to average double-digits by default, and the continued development of a post-game, combined with some added size could turn him into a legitimate offensive option.
Some of his improvement can be credited to continuous play. At the start of the season Noel was acclimating to NBA play, as well as working to get back to basketball shape after having sat on the sideline for over a year. Some rust was expected. Throughout the season, as he has gotten the opportunity to play more and more, you’ve seen that rust disappear, and a truly unique skill-set emerge.
Through his on-court effort, Noel has become a sort-of de-facto leader for the young Sixers, a role he was virtually thrust into after the reigning Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams was traded in February. Although he is technically only a rookie, Noel has been in the system since June 2013, and is one of the team’s longest tenured players.
“I just want to continue to progress. I want to establish myself and continue to play hard for the city of Philadelphia, and just continue to get better,” Noel told reporters after the team’s win over the Hawks.
When asked if the absence of Michael Carter-Williams was a contributing factor in his improving play and his expanding leadership role, Noel acknowledged that indeed it was.
“I want to assert myself as a leader on this team, both on and off the court. I want to lead by example.”
With his improving play and endless energy lately, Noel has certainly been setting a solid example, and the League is starting to take note.
Michael Kaskey-Blomain is a scribe for Philadunkia. You can follow him on Twitter @therealmikeKB.
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