Nerlens Noel. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Ask UK head coach John Calipari to compare his current freshman forward Nerlens Noel to his 2012 National Player of the Year and No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Davis, and he will say that comparison is not fair.
But mention Davis’ single-season SEC block record, and Noel has no trouble reciting the number.
“186, I think it was,” he said in a preseason interview with KyForward.
Shot-blocking is where the comparisons between Noel and Davis begin. It took Davis just 22 games to break the previous school record for blocked shots in a single season, but some outside observers have already anointed Noel as an even better shot-blocker.
Noel isn’t shy about his shot-blocking prowess either.
“Definitely going after his shot-blocking record,” he said. “That’s a lot of blocked shots, but I think I definitely am capable of breaking that record with a lot of work, a lot of unity with this team.”
Noel may be Davis’ shot-blocking equal, but like the 2012 Final Four Most Outstanding Player he enters college with an offensive game that is still very much a work in progress.
“He shouldn’t be compared (to Davis),” Calipari said in a preseason roundtable interview with local media. “They’re totally different. They’re not even the same. Nerlens is going to give us a different type of game.”
Calipari’s primary objection to the comparisons seems to be the attempt to equate Noel now with Davis at the end of his freshman season.
“We forget where Anthony was early in the year,” Calipari said. “I mean, yeah he could dunk balls and do all that, (but) he had absolutely no post game. He was shaky shooting free throws until in the end he became a real good free-throw shooter. Physically, (he) couldn’t hold his position.”
Davis also frequently played like a guard trapped in a giant’s body after a massive growth spur late in his high-school career sent him to college at 6-foot-10.
“He shoots the ball at a higher rate, kind of like a guard,” Noel said of Davis. “You can tell he was a guard before, just with some of the things he does.”
Nerlens Noel (File photo by Jon Hale)
Like Davis, Noel knows what it feels like to have the spotlight shined on him before his first collegiate game.
Noel and his freshmen teammates Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress make up the fourth consecutive No. 1 recruiting class for Calipari at UK, but Noel is the most highly touted player in the group.
He was the 2012 USA Today National Player of the Year and was ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the country by ESPN and Scout.com.
As a senior at Tilton High School in Massachusetts, Noel averaged 12.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game.
For all his accolades, Noel is currently behind his freshmen teammates in terms of development after missing summer workouts while he finished the academic requirements that allowed him to reclassify from the high school class of 2013 to the class of 2012.
“It is what it is,” Noel said of missing summer workouts. “You deal with the situation. I definitely just focused on what I had to do and took care of it. That’s why I’m here today.”
That absence has Calipari laying the foundation for some more realistic expectations for Noel early in the season.
“When Nerlens catches up, you’ll see the improvement of his game,” Calipari said. “(People will say) ‘Oh, he’s not as good as we thought.’ OK, so when he’s drafted really high you’ll say, ‘Well, he was that way when we got him.’”
Noel’s teammates are already impressed with his defensive presence.
“His athleticism is just nuts. I never realized how good he is,” Cauley-Stein said. “You watch videos of him blocking shots, but when you go against him and he’s blocking your shot, then you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, OK. I get what they’re’ saying now.’”
“He’s caught me a lot in pick-up games,” said senior guard Twany Beckham. “It’s just nice knowing that when one of us gets beat, we’ve got him back there as a presence.”
Noel recently had the chance to play with Davis in a pick-up game for the first time. Calipari’s message about Davis not being the same player when he arrived on campus as when he left appears to have sunk in.
“The first time I played him, really seeing how much he progressed in the last year he was here at Kentucky, you see what a program like this can really do for you,” Noel said.
Asked for a report on Noel, Davis told Calipari Noel looked good but said he was able to push him off the post.
That assessment was just one more reminder for Calipari of the work Noel still has to do.
“We’ve got to teach the kid how to sit down and hold your position until he gets stronger,” he said. “He’s not ever going to be Shaq. That’s not how he is. But he’s really quick and fast, and he’s got a quick twitch.”
At this point it’s impossible to know if Noel can follow in Davis’ footsteps at UK to Player of the Year honors, the blocked-shots record or a national championship.
Whatever happens during his freshman season, Noel is going into it with an open mind.
“It’s a comparison I’m going to deal with, but it’s never bad to be compared to a great player like him, who won all the accolades he did,” Noel said. “I’m just going to stay focused and play my own game when I step on the court and bring what I have to bring to the table to win games for my team.”
In the two weeks before Big Blue Madness, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be previewing the 2012-13 UK men’s basketball series with a profile of each of the 12 Wildcats as well as other features to get you ready for the team’s attempt to repeat as National Champions. Previous profiles in the series have focused on Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin. Tomorrow’s profile looks at Nerlens Noel.
On the ‘Our Sports’ page, you can also read today’s feature “Abundance of length has Calipari pondering potential lineups, even playing both big men” and on the KyForward UK Sports Notebook you can see more from the one-on-one interview with Nerlens Noel.