I hope there’s room on that back for everyone, Nerlens.
Full disclosure: I was going to be Team Nerlens no matter what. We’re both Bostonians by birth, and if you’ve seen any Ben Affleck movie ever, you know that that bond is no joke. He could have turned out to be an even lazier Randolph Morris, and I would have irrationally defended him until his last day in Lexington. That’s how the whole Boston thing works– we’re fiercely loyal and we overvalue everything. Teams, athletes, movie stars, beers (what’s up, Sam Adams?), you name it, we hype it up. So, you can imagine my surprise in admitting that Nerlens has managed to exceed my own ridiculous expectations.
Noel came to UK as the top player in the 2012 class, and the expected number one overall pick in the 2013 draft. And thus far, he has done nothing to hurt his stock- not in my admittedly biased eyes, or those of NBA scouts. Chad Ford still has him at the top of his big board, while Draft Express has him at 2, just behind Shabazz. Yeah, it’s the NBA, so potential plays a large role in those projections for some players (looking at you, Alex Poythress), but Nerlens has earned every bit of his NBA promise on the court. He has been a monster defensively from the get-go, hovering just below Anthony Davis’s blocks per game pace, while also chasing Rajon Rondo’s steals per game record. Throw in a rapidly improving offensive game, double-digit rebounds every time he steps on the floor, and a motor that doesn’t stop, and you’ve got a superstar in the making.
Is he Anthony Davis? No, he’s not. But even I can admit that it would have been ridiculous to assume that he ever would be. Davis put together the best individual season that college basketball had seen in two decades, maybe ever. The fact that it’s even close, that Nerlens and Davis comparisons are still being made, is amazing in it’s own right. He has lived up to the hype, and that’s no small thing.
All that said, Noel can be better. Scratch that, Noel NEEDS to be better. No, I don’t mean that he needs to pick up a consistent 18-footer or become more reliable from the line (although that would be nice), I mean that we need more out of him if we want to have any prayer of salvaging this season. It is painfully obvious that if this team is lacking one thing, it’s veteran leadership. Without a savvy vet like Darius Miller or DeAndre Liggins, and with no supernatural frosh like MKG demanding that everyone follow their lead, these Cats are essentially rudderless. So, in order for this team to pull themselves out of the NCAA no-mans-land that is the bubble watch, Nerlens is going to need to carry us. We need him to be the leader.
The good news is that Nerlens has already build the foundation to step up as the de-facto captain going forward. Yeah, he has put up some ridiculous numbers to date (last night he became the 1st D-I player since 1996-97 to go for 15 pts, 11 reb, 6 ast, 7 blk and 4 stl in a single game), but that’s only half the reason that he’s capable of being the guy. It’s the example he sets for everyone else that makes him leadership material. There’s no quit in Nerlens, and as Kristen said in her post last night, his hustle has continually wowed BBN on a game by game basis. It is rare that a player with the talent that Noel has goes all out to the extent that he does. More than anything else, including the blocks and the hi-top fade, that’s what makes him special. And that’s why he needs to tell the team to pile on his back from here on out.
If last night’s post game comments are any indication of what to expect going forward, then it looks as if Nerlens might be ready to step up and fill that role. Sounding a lot like another freshman who understood that he needed to be the leader, Nerlens said “it’s time we take responsibility. Coach Cal has done a lot for us, but I feel it’s time for us, as a team, to start coming around, clicking, and doing what we have to do… There’s a time, that us as players, have to start taking responsibility and I feel that time is now.”
The time is definitely now. Let’s hope Nerlens is up to the task. He’s our last best hope if we want to win.