The Philadelphia 76ers have lost over 60 games, have one of the worst offenses I’ve ever seen, and have maybe three or four legitimate NBA players. But each and every night, I find myself wanting to watch them more and more.
Thank you, Nerlens Noel.
In a time where exciting guys like Russell Westbrook are slashing up and down the court, I’m watching the 6-foot-11, flat-top center lead a group of less-than-appealing guys to 18 wins. But I can’t help myself. Over the last few months, I’ve become so enamored with the first-year player that I’ve repeatedly tweeted about him, which usually followed with folks telling me to stop tweeting about basketball. However, I love everything about Noel– from his awesome hair to his dominating defensive anchor ability on the floor. And with just a few days left in the NBA season, award races are as close as ever.
Most people see the high-flying, offensively gifted, athletic Andrew Wiggins and gravitate towards him because, well, let’s face it. He’s super exciting. And I get it, and he’s very, very good. But, as Fred Katz of Fox Sports points out, “Defense wins championships. It just isn’t going to get you Rookie of the Year.”
Maybe it should.
During his first season in the NBA, Noel hasn’t just improved a bit, but has legitimately established himself as one of the best defensive players in the entire league. He ranks top-eight in the league in blocks per game (1.89) and teams are really struggling to score the basketball when he’s roaming the paint.
As you can see, Noel is one of the best rim protectors in all of basketball. The opposition is having a better chance of scoring at the rim going against the likes of Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan this season. And it’s even more impressive when you consider that only two players in the entire league are seeing more shots at the rim than Noel, who is averaging 9.5 per contest this season. He’s become one of the best shot-blockers in the game, and it truly is an accomplishment to score on him when attacking the basket.
Just ask James Harden…
There have been 17 occasions this year where Noel has recorded at least three blocks, which translates to almost 25 percent of the time. He ranks seventh in the NBA in total blocks (141) and the opposition is shooting 8.8 percent worse when Noel is contesting a shot from six feet within the basket. We know what he can do as a rim protector, but he’s also been an awesome source of steals, averaging 1.8 per contest on the season. That makes him one of only two power forwards/centers inside the top-15 in that category in the league. Noel is also on pace to finish the year as one of only 20 players in league history to record just under two blocks and steals per game, joining the company of one Hakeem Olajuwon, which is never a bad thing. It’s quite clear that Nerlens is posting some ridiculous individual defensive numbers.
But his presence has been monumental on the entire team.
Last season, Philadelphia was one of the worst defensive units in the NBA. They surrendered 109.9 points per game, the most in basketball, while ranking 26th in terms of defensive efficiency. The 76ers also coughed up 44.2 points in the paint per game, which ranked 21st. However, they severely lacked that big body in the middle, as the likes of Spencer Hawes and Henry Sims didn’t exactly frighten opposing offenses.
2015 has been quite different.
While the Sixers are one of the worst teams in the league, they haven’t exactly been a joke on the defensive end. They’ve climbed to a top-12 ranking in terms of defensive efficiency, have dropped to 18th in points per game allowed and have improved to 15th in paint points allowed. And when Noel is on the floor, Philadelphia’s defense is 3.8 points per 100 possessions better than when he is off the floor. During the months of February and March, meanwhile, the Sixers allowed 94.5 points per 100 possessions. And to put that into perspective, the Warriors, also known as the best team in the league, are giving up just over 97 points per 100 possessions this year. This defense isn’t the laughing stock of basketball any longer, and Noel hasn’t just been a part of it.
He’s been the catalyst.
Noel has also shown growth in his first season, improving seemingly every night. Here are his pre and post All-Star numbers this year:
Pre All-Star: 8.2 PPG, 7.2 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.7 BLK, 1.6 STL
Post All-Star: 13.1 PPG, 10.0 REB, 1.9 AST, 2.3 BLK, 2.1 STL
Nerlens is still relatively raw on the offensive end, as his post moves are inconsistent and he also needs to work on is shooting touch. However, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t improved. During the first half of the season, Noel shot 57.8 percent inside the paint, but that number has climbed all the way up to 66.4 since the All-Star break. Of course, people will look at Wiggins and his 16.7 points per game, which easily leads all first-year players, and think he deserves the award. And don’t get it twisted. This isn’t me saying that Wiggins isn’t deserving, because he’s been awesome, too. During the month of April so far, Wiggins is averaging 25.5 points, five rebounds and three assists. However, to me, Noel has helped his team win games more than Wiggins has. Despite having more talent on the roster, the Timberwolves have two less wins and one more loss than the 76ers. Wiggins may be the more talented and exciting player, but when on the floor, Noel has helped his team more than the number-one overall draft pick.
He and Joel Embiid should be terrifying next season.