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Noel receives less attention than Kentucky's All-Star big men, but the rookie stats stack up

Nerlens Noel battles DeMarcus Cousins in the paint during his rookie season. (Photo from NBA.com)

Nerlens Noel battles DeMarcus Cousins in the paint during his rookie season. (Photo from NBA.com)

By Jonathan Coffman
KyForward intern

The NBA is quickly becoming a faster, smaller league, but a handful of former Kentucky big men are managing to keep the position relevant.

Nerlens Noel is just doing it without the spotlight.

Since John Calipari started coaching the Wildcats in 2009, there have been multiple elite prospects at the bigger playing positions. DeMarcus Cousins was taken with the No. 5 pick in 2010, Anthony Davis was taken with the No. 1 pick in 2012 and Karl-Anthony Towns just followed in Davis’ footsteps in the 2015 draft.

But Noel was taken No. 6 by the New Orleans Hornets in 2013, traded during the draft to the Philadelphia 76ers and missed his first year due a to torn ACL suffered while playing at Kentucky. After the 2014-15 season, Noel’s rookie numbers are enough to prove he should be taken seriously in conversations about the up-and-coming big men in the NBA.

In fact, Noel outplayed or nearly matched Cousins and Davis in most major statistical categories when comparing their respective rookie seasons.

Cousins posted 14.1 points, 0.8 blocks, 8.6 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game in his rookie year. Noel outperformed Cousins in major defensive areas, averaging 1.9 blocks and 1.8 steals per game. On the glass, Noel barely ranked behind Cousins with 8.1 rebounds per game, but fell behind offensively with 9.9 points per game.

Noel outmatched Davis’ rookie year in the blocks, steals and assists categories. He was only edged by Davis’ 13.5 points per game, and fell a tenth short of Davis’ 8.2 rebounds per game.

Keep in mind, Davis is a player being groomed to be the next “face” of the league. The New Orleans power forward/center just inked the NBA’s richest contract, a five-year extension worth nearly $145 million.

Both Cousins and Davis, soon to enter their sixth and fourth years as pros, are earning respect in the league. Cousins made his first All-Star team appearance last season. In 2014-15, Davis made his second trip to the All-Star game and earned his first start, and later was considered a serious MVP candidate.

Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel ranked No. 1 and 2 in blocks per game in the 2014-2015 season.

Davis and Noel ranked No. 1 and 8 in the league for blocks per game in the 2014-2015 season. (Photo from NBA.com)

The largest gap between these players and the 76ers big man is on offense. Noel ranked behind both in points per game, but not by an alarming margin. He has been considered a defensive player since playing in college, when he was on track to eclipse Davis’ single season Kentucky record for blocked shots before tearing his ACL.

Noel’s offensive game may not have been as polished during his rookie season as Cousins’ and Davis’, but they did not face returning from a significant injury. Cousins’ PPG average improved from 14.1 to 18.1 in his second season, and Davis’ jumped from 13.5 to 20.8. Noel could also see a dramatic spike in his offensive production after playing 75 games in a healthy 2014-15 season.

Noel may need to find his rhythm to start adding to the scoreboard, but otherwise he is already on track to develop into another All-Star from Kentucky.

Now it’s time for people to take notice.


Noel will not be the only one proving his worth this season. Aaron Harrison signed a deal with non-disclosed terms to play for the Charlotte Hornets Tuesday.

Harrison went undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft. He joined Charlotte for Summer League, and played in all five games for the Hornets at the Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League in Orlando.

(Photo from NBA.com)

Harrison is the seventh Wildcat from the 2014-2015 Kentucky team to sign an NBA contract. (Photo from NBA.com)

He scored in double figures in all five contests, averaging 13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and team highs of 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals in 29.0 minutes per game.

Charlotte Hornets General Manager Rich Cho commented on Harrison’s potential in a statement following the announcement.

“Aaron Harrison played very well for us in Summer League,” Cho said. “He is a talented young player with a lot of potential and we look forward to seeing what he can do moving forward.”

While Harrison stays put in Charlotte, the 2015 No. 6 overall pick Willie Cauley-Stein will return to play in Rupp Arena prior to the regular season. A preseason game between the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans in Rupp Arena was announced Tuesday. The game will be played Oct. 17, a day after Big Blue Madness and two days following UK’s Thursday night football matchup with Auburn in Commonwealth Stadium.

Both teams feature notable former Kentucky players. Cousins highlights the Kings roster, accompanied by new teammate Cauley-Stein. The Kings also signed Rajon Rondo, a former Kentucky guard, to a one-year $9.5 million deal Monday. NCAA Basketball Tournament Championship MVP Anthony Davis will return to Rupp Arena as well with the Pelicans.

Tickets for the exhibition range in price from $10 to $250 and go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. at the Rupp Arena box office, www.ticketmaster.com or www.RuppArena.com, or by calling Ticket Master at 1-800-745-3000.

Jonathan Coffman is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky

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