After placing third in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting, Nerlens Noel proved he has a chance to become a valuable piece of the Philadelphia 76ers’ long-term puzzle. Playing the center position for most of the season, he made an immediate impact on the defensive end and his offensive game improved as the season progressed. Now that the Sixers have drafted Jahil Okafor, the team hopes Noel can be an effective power forward for years to come.
When Noel returned from his ACL injury last summer, I thought Tyson Chandler would be a good comparison in terms of expectations for what Noel could ultimately bring to the table (or perhaps a more intelligent version of Samuel Dalembert). They both have similar skill sets, and overall, I could see Noel putting up similar numbers: 12 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks, roughly speaking. There’s no question he can defend the rim as well as almost anyone in the NBA, considering he ranked eighth in blocks per game his rookie season.
At the beginning of the year, though, you could see the awkwardness of his one-on-one game. At 228 pounds, he was often pushed around when he made post moves, resulting in hook shots that appeared rushed and had little chance of going in. Before the All-Star break, he was shooting 44.5 percent, which is nothing to brag about when nearly all his damage was done within a few feet of the basket. But after the team traded Michael Carter-Williams, Noel was given more opportunities and made the most of them, increasing his shooting average to nearly 49 percent. After the All-Star break, he averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, resulting in a full-season PER of 15.03, an average rating for an NBA player. Not too shabby for a rookie.
As he got more used to the NBA game, his post moves became more fluid, and he even began hitting jump shots with greater regularity. This isn’t to say, though, that he doesn’t need work on this area of his game. In order for Noel to have a greater impact than Chandler, he needs to hit more jumpers, especially when he doesn’t have the size to be consistently successful in the post. Last season he made less than 29 percent of his shots in the paint outside the restricted area, and less than 31 percent from mid-range, both of which are atrocious.
Fortunately, there have been recent reports claiming that Noel has been committed to improving his jumper in the offseason. We’ll see how this results when the season begins, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. His jump-shooting will become especially important, considering he’ll be paired with a player in Okafor who has limited range. Most probably, at least one of them will need a reliable jump shot in order to complement each other.
If Noel can hit about 40 percent of his jump shots, he can become one of the best two-way players in the league. That may be a big “if,” but if he was able to improve his free-throw shooting from 56 percent to 66 percent after the All-Star break, there’s reason for encouragement.