If you happened to catch the end of the Knicks’ thrilling overtime win over the Pelicans on Sunday, there’s a good chance you saw this nasty play at the rim and thought “oh, DAMN!” as I did:
Nerlens tells Brandon Ingram NO!!!! pic.twitter.com/TnA7Vqq6l9
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) April 18, 2021
You may have also seen this poster rejection, which Noel served just two days ago to his former team, the Mavericks.
NERLENS NOEL MET FINNEY-SMITH AT THE RIM ?
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 17, 2021
This sequence of highlight plays clearly has America perplexed, based on recent search results questioning whether Nerlens Noel is, in fact, good:
What we have hear is a controversy in need of clearing up. So that’s why I’m here to tell you that Nerlens Noel is not only good, but he has quite possibly been the best defensive big man in the NBA this year.
Since his days at Kentucky, Noel has been renowned as a shot-blocking force in the paint, good for solid NBA-caliber rim protection and the potential for so much more. That potential was what got him drafted sixth overall in the 2013 draft, despite the understanding by NBA teams that he would miss the entire 2014 season due to the ACL injury that cruelly ended his college career a few months earlier.
His reputation was further hurt by being drafted into a crowded frontcourt in Philadelphia, where he was forced to compete for playing time with two top-3 draft picks in Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. Despite a solid performance in his first two seasons (averages of 12 points, two blocks, two steals and nearly 10 rebounds per 36 minutes), Noel was shipped to Dallas because Philly valued Okafor’s offensive upside (we all saw how that turned out).
With the Mavericks, Nerlens flashed his potential once again, and was evidently so sure of his abilities that he famously turned down a four-year, $70 million extension in 2017. The gamble backfired, as he tore a ligament in his thumb the following season and missed 42 games. He ended up signing a two-year league-minimum deal with the Thunder instead.
Noel played well in Oklahoma City, leading them in defensive box plus-minus both seasons. But at the end of the day they passed him over too, opting to stick by slow-footed big man Steven Adams instead. For the second time in his career, Nerlens’ value was overlooked.
He joined the Knicks this year on a cheap one-year, $5 million contract with the expectation that he’d serve as Mitchell Robinson’s backup on a middling young team. However, after Robinson went down with a hand fracture in February — and again since he fractured his ankle three weeks ago — Noel took over. Now he’s the starting center on a playoff-bound team, and he’s showing the whole league just what they’ve been missing.
Per Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, who wrote a terrific breakdown of Noel’s resurgence this week:
Nerlens Noel ranks
1st in NBA in defensive plus-minus,
2nd in NBA in block % for the
3rd best defensive team in the NBA while earning
$5M on a one-year deal
Talk about this more
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) April 13, 2021
Through 50 games this season, Noel is producing just 5.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest. However, he’s also averaging a career-high 2.1 blocks per game (3.3 per 36), and is among the league leaders in both block % (8.9) and steal % (2.2). As Wasserman points out in the article, he’s also been the driving force behind the Knicks’ 60.2% opponent field goal rate in the paint, which is second-best in the NBA. And keep in mind, his frontcourt mate Julius Randle (as much as we love him) is not known for his rim protection.
Nerlens mania peaked this week, with the above clips earning the attention of everyone from noted Knicks fan Matt Jones of KSR dot com to Rick Pitino. However, the buzz is hardly unearned. Counting today’s 12-point, eight-rebound and two-block effort, Noel averaged 8.3 points, 10 boards and three blocks in the past week, and he may be turning a corner.
Kenny Payne effect, anyone?
The only thing that can slow him down is injuries, which is why it was so concerning for UK and Knicks fans alike when he left today’s game in the first quarter with a bruised right hand that grazed the rim on a block attempt. Thankfully he was able to return and make winning plays down the stretch, namely the one at the top of this post.
Get ready to see a lot more Nerlens as the Knicks make their final playoff push this month. Lord knows he’s been waiting for this moment long enough.