The Ego and Alter-Ego of Nerlens Noel

Note: this post was originally published for The Strickland. Give them a click!

Mitchell Robinson is good at basketball. 

We know this. We have spoken at length about this. Mitchell Robinson was anchoring one of the top five defenses in basketball at 22 years old. Unfortunately, Mitchell Robinson also broke his hand.

In lieu of that, Taj Gibson would figure to absorb some minutes. Taj Gibson is a reputable defensive player and trusted by coach Tom Thibodeau. Unfortunately, Taj also injured his ankle.

The resurgent Knicks needed a lot of help if they wanted to keep up their thus-far strong defensive play. It was an emergency. They needed to send out a distress signal. Put out the Bat-Signal to summon their local superhero. 

Batman has delivered, as the only currently healthy “5” on the Knicks’ roster — a 26-year-old, 6-foot-10, first-year Knick named Nerlens Noel

Once upon a time, Noel playing like a superhero wouldn’t have been all that surprising:

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Nerlens was the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school, beating out high school sensation Shabazz Muhammad for the designation. The New York Times called him “the best shot blocker of his generation,” but also said “from a basketball standpoint, Noel is considered raw offensively.” I’d say, in hindsight, the “basketball standpoint” matters, somewhat.

His defensive abilities, though, more than translated to the college game. At New York Knicks Pipeline School University of Kentucky, Noel’s talents were on full display. On January 29, 2013 against Ole Miss, he had 12 blocks in a single game. That’s still by far the all-time Kentucky record, with multiple second-place players once achieving nine. Five of those blocks occurred while Noel had four fouls.

Just as he had in recruiting for college, Noel soon ranked No. 1 on boards for the NBA Draft, from ESPN to Draft Express and Sports Illustrated. All this despite averaging fewer than 11 points per game, shooting under 55% from the free throw line, and sporting a sub-1.0 assist to turnover ratio. His offense wasn’t great. His defense had the chance to be generational.

Less than a month later, he tore the ACL in his left knee. His college career was over. Noel still entered the draft, but fell all the way to sixth, a good deal in part due to the knee injury. 

Over the next eight years, Noel has been a rotation player, but mostly an afterthought in the NBA. He journeyed from Philadelphia, to Dallas, to Oklahoma City, and this past offseason was only able to command a one-year, $5 million deal from the Knicks, who were naturally made fun of for the Kentucky connection upon the signing.

As the season has progressed, Knick fans watching Nerlens night in and night out have started to pick up on his… idiosyncrasies.

It’s uncanny. The man simply can’t catch a basketball, let alone handle one. Among all players with 30-plus turnovers this season, only one player, James Wiseman, has fewer assists than Nerlens.

There’s even an active GoFundMe seeking to… help:

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Knicks Reddit, as always, has gotten their jokes off too:

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It would certainly be difficult to catch and handle a basketball with ping pong paddles for hands. Deflections and blocks, though? Those might be even easier.

This is the man the Knicks put out the Bat-Signal for — and all he’s done is lead New York to a top-10 defensive rating and a 7-3 record since Mitch’s injury. In the Knicks’ past four games, their superhero played 41, 40, 37, and 42 minutes, respectively — his only four games over 32 minutes this season, and three of the six highest minute totals in his entire career. Talk about suiting up and throwing on a cape.

Bruce Wayne is a soft-shelled businessman — a billionaire, sure, but not worth his weight in a fight against evil. There’s no way he’d roll to the rim in a timely fashion. A wide open midrange jumper? Brick. A pinpoint pass to lead him to the bucket? Through the hands out of bounds. And don’t even bother trying to dribble in traffic. 

Batman, though? 

Batman has lightning-quick reflexes getting into the passing lane. His brain thinks three passes ahead. He can blow up an alley-oop without even looking.

And make no mistake — Nerlens is one of the best defensive bigs — no, defensive players — in the NBA. Per BBall Index data, his interior defense profile is downright unbelievable, ranking at least 97% in pretty much every way to measure rim protection:

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Like Batman luring an unsuspecting robber into an alley for capture, he ranks middle of the road in keeping players away from the rim, but once those players get there, it’s a wrap. 

He’s excellent on the perimeter too, ranking in the 98th percentile leaguewide in deflections, among other impressive numbers:

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Look at this microcosm of the enigma that is Nerlens Noel — superhuman instincts to jump the pass on the inbound, but simply unable to corral the ball, ending up in a turnover right back to the opponent:

Let’s dive into maybe the most “Nerlens” game of the season — March 2 against the Spurs, one of the few losses in the recent Knicks stretch. He had four turnovers in that game, and they weren’t exactly beautiful-passes-that-unfortunately-get-tipped-by-incredible-plays turnovers. They rarely are — per Cleaning the Glass, Noel’s turnover rate ranks in just the third percentile league-wide — despite his usage rate ranking in the second percentile!

Turnover No. 1:

Man, this hurts to watch — and avid Knicks-watchers know plays like these are a common occurrence. A wide open layup, down the drain:

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Continued turnovers like this one can simply tank a team’s offense. It’s no small wonder Nerlens ranks 470th out of 479 players in offensive Real Plus-Minus. 

Fast forward just a couple of minutes — RJ Barrett drives, draws the help defender, and makes the right play:

And if catching point blank passes wasn’t hard enough, how about throwing them?

This next one has to be the holy grail. 

Our boy Immanuel Quickley makes the right play to set up an open dunk:

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But of course, the ball ends up on the floor. However, Noel somehow gathers it back:

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But then has it knocked away again. Somehow, a third time, Noel ends up with the ball, now with clear, stable possession and plenty of should-be outlet options:

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Before he throws a feeble bounce pass right back to the Spurs. The entire ordeal takes nearly 10 full seconds. And yeah, four turnovers that game for Bruce Wayne.

But three blocks for Batman.

Blocks themselves don’t have a ton of intrinsic value, if we’re being honest. Oftentimes, players can simply hunt for blocks and let up open layups, or foul extremely often in pursuit of them. And blocks don’t even guarantee your team the ball back as steals do — research indicates that the defensive team barely recovers the ball more than half the time after a shot is blocked.

What’s more important is overall team defense — keeping guys away from the basket, contesting looks, and rotating quickly. Of course, blocks and deflections are good too.

Nerlens doesn’t only get blocks often — he creates blocks by executing elite team defense and often forcing late-clock pathetic excuses for “field goal attempts.”

Let’s rewatch the clip above — first, he half ices/half switches this pick-and-roll, forcing DeMar DeRozan to pick up his dribble:

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DeRozan executes the skip pass, and before the ball even reaches its receiver, Noel is perfectly back in position, not only switching back to the roll man Poetl, but between Poetl and the basket:

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The receiver, Keita Bates-Diop, drives to the rim on Kevin Knox (usually a successful strategy), and Noel is already in perfect position for the block:

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Note that instead of swatting balls into the “fifth row” — which is a ton of fun, but gives the ball right back to the offense — Noel often creates easy rebound and transition opportunities for his teammates with his deflections.

Block No. 2:

The Spurs run very high pick-and-roll, nearly 30 feet away from the basket. This can be a recipe for disaster for a defense — not only is the team stretched to its limit, but often the big man can get caught on an island in empty space against a nimble ball handler:

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In this case, though, the island is more of the Revis variety. Noel stays with Walker step for step from 30 feet all the way down to zero, earning the poster rejection:

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These aren’t your grandfather’s basic help-side blocks. These are entire defensive possessions essentially locked up by the efforts of a single player.

Similar story for his third block of the night — blows up the pick-and-roll 20 feet away, and just swallows up the ball handler all the way to the basket:

Does any other player in the NBA have such a colossal divide between their offensive and defense value? Consulting some of the leading advanced impact metrics:

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Sometimes, analytics and the eye test say the same thing! (Actually, more than sometimes, but let’s avoid that rabbit hole.)

It’s an almost mind-numbing discrepancy in offensive and defensive value, and gets to the core mystery behind, and my fascination with, Nerlens as a player. Professional basketballers are extremely tall, strong, and fast, yes — but so much of what makes players good is what’s going on in their brains. Luka Doncic can pick apart a defense not because of his athleticism or ball handling, but his brains. A generational prospect, passed over multiple times in the draft because of this blind spot in scouting. Draymond Green fell to the second round, but ended up blowing up hundreds of defensive plays, on his way to multiple NBA championships, by thinking three plays ahead.

Nerlens shows that type of otherworldly anticipation on defense.

These are somehow two separate plays from the same game, where he gets right in position for the play he knows is going to happen:

But then on offense, he’s just a different person:

Awareness level zero — Noel has no idea where the defender is, can’t sense him coming to pick the pocket, and doesn’t have strong enough hands to hold onto the ball once the defender attacks. 

Noel is a compelling player for the same reasons that Batman is a compelling character — such stark duality; the combination of both dominating skill and personal weakness. He deserves a ton of credit for holding the fort down in Mitch’s absence, and both his Kentucky roots and his symbiosis with Tom Thibodeau could make him an intriguing candidate for a second contract with the Knicks. 

In my opinion, a worthy gamble. Nerlens is already 26, but hey, you can’t teach 99th-percentile defensive instincts. Maybe there’s a chance you can teach hands.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

follow Derek on Twitter @d_reif

follow Corner Three on Twitter @corner3sports

follow The Strickland on Twitter @TheStrickland

cover art by @aighttho

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