Nerlens Noel is Secretly Having a Breakout Season

Jan 8, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel (4) puts up a shot against Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) in the fourth quarter at Barclays Center. Sixers win 105-95. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 8, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel (4) puts up a shot against Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) in the fourth quarter at Barclays Center. Sixers win 105-95. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports /

Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel has built his reputation on defense. In year three, Noel has taken an offensive leap despite his reserve role.

The loud radio personalities and hot take curators are right. Philadelphia 76er GM Bryan Colangelo is at least partially responsible for pushing this team to where it is now. It’s no small feat.  The Philadelphia 76ers, one of the worst teams in history, doubled their win total before the All-Star break.  Yes, a great deal of the credit goes to Joel Embiid alone.  Still, contributors like Gerald Henderson and Ersan Ilyasova have brought average NBA skillsets to a below-average team. When everything clicks, the Phildelphia 76ers are capable of beating any of the bottom 20 teams on a given night.

On the other hand, the team has continued to enjoy unexpected success. That is especially  true in the recent stretch of wins without their Cameroonian supernova.  How?  It’s a result of one of the core tenets of Sam Hinkie’s Process: player development.  It’s clearly evident in the play of longest-tenured Sixer Nerlens Noel.

Noel’s Progress

The 6’11 Kentucky standout has very quietly taken a leap offensively this season. His per 36 minutes counting numbers ostensibly back this up: 16.4 pts, 9.2 rebs, 2.7 steals and 1.7 blocks. While impressive, these numbers are in line with previous years, with the block total actually representing a career low. His increased value, then, comes from a substantial uptick in efficiency.

Nerlens Noel is making 61.1 percent of his field goals, a number that would put him fifth in the league behind other elite, rim-running shot blockers DeAndre Jordan, Clint Capela, Dwight Howard and Rudy Gobert if the Sixers big man had played enough to qualify. His true shooting percentage is up a whopping 14 points since his rookie season in 2014-15, from 49.3 to 63.4. Noel has even improved his midrange jumper, which wasn’t so dependable last year. Just under 12 percent of his shots in the 2015-16 season were from 16+ feet.  Unfortunately, he made a paltry 23 percent of them. This year, that same distance makes up around 13 percent of his shot attempts.  Even better, he’s canning them at an exceptional 47.6 percent clip.


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For perspective, Dirk Nowitzki has made 47.5 percent of his shots from that distance in his career. Even so, take Noel’s shooting success with a grain of salt. We can attribute a good bit of it to small sample size and low volume. It’s also possible, maybe probable, that Noel is taking advantage of playing most of his minutes against second units.

Even still, he’s playing like a starting center off the bench and has improved in areas that couldn’t vary based on the quality of the opponent. For example, maybe he’s no Dirk, but Noel’s 68.3 mark from the free throw line, well above his career best 60.9, is a sign that the shot is legitimately improved. That improvement has led to higher efficiency, to the tune of an All-Star-level 20.9 PER, limited minutes aside.

Nerlens Noel is flourishing as he goes back to spending all of his minutes at his natural position. Watch him below (1:24 mark) as he blocks a drive attempt, leads the break and fires a one-handed pass to an open Covington on the wing. As the game evolves towards small ball, an elite shot-blocker who can run the floor and catch lobs is a valuable and versatile commodity. Noel made quite a few nifty passes in this game (see :56 and 1:40), his first of just seven starts on the year.

At 2:10, he shows off a part of his game that’s almost always been there, using his incredible athleticism to finish off a poor lob from Stauskas with one hand. In the play after, his anticipation of the miss leads to an easy putback dunk. I am still salivating at the quickness he shows driving to his left at 2:44, past DeAndre Jordan no less.

Despite his obvious inability to create for himself, he’s arguably the best offensive player in the lineup when he starts and leads a defensive group that doesn’t miss as much of a beat as you’d expect without Joel Embiid. His long arms, hyper athleticism and quick hands lead to a ton of blocks and steals, nearly three steals per 36 minutes, in fact. That’s an elite number for any player, let alone a center. Noel and Robert Covington are both among the league’s best swipers and, along with the (cliched but true) pesky TJ McConnell, create an unwelcoming environment for ballhandlers.

Because of his play this year, it’s becoming hard to argue that Nerlens Noel isn’t one of the NBA’s top 15 centers. In his first two years, Noel had been mostly a wash offensively, with 0.1 career offensive win shares coming into the season, while using his athleticism and IQ to play stellar defense. Both his offense and defense have been worth 1.1 wins apiece through the All-Star break, not bad for a backup center who’s played 29 games. Not to mention the fact that, at 22 going on 23, Noel is younger than much less experienced players like Richaun Holmes and Buddy Hield.

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With Embiid’s potential return, along with Jahlil Okafor’s likely departure, following the break, Noel will continue to flourish on the Sixers very solid and still improving second unit alongside Dario Saric. Whether that’s his long-term future or not, it is certainly a bright one.