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Nerlens Noel’s Historic Case for Rookie of the Year

Highly touted as a prospect while at Kentucky, Nerlens Noel suffered an ugly ACL tear, dropped to six in a weak draft, and sat out all of last season after Sam Hinkie traded Jrue Holiday for him. Finally playing his rookie year for an awful Philadelphia team, it’s understandable that Noel’s season has been largely overlooked. However, dig into what he has been up to, and a strong Rookie of the Year case emerges. Rather than trying to prove why he has been more valuable than Andrew Wiggins, I’ll instead just illuminate the impressive rarity of what Noel is doing.

Nerlens has shown huge defensive potential all season while often struggling to become any part of the offense. Overall, Noel is averaging 8.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks. Obviously the steal and block averages jump off the page, but we’ll get into that more in a bit. Noel is shooting 44 percent from the field and just 61 percent from the free throw line on 2.8 attempts per game. He stays out of foul trouble, only committing 2.8 per game thus far, per Basketball-Reference.

While Noel’s offensive game undoubtedly leaves something to be desired, his steal and block numbers are legitimately insane. In league history, only one other rookie has averaged more than 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game: David Robinson. In addition to spending four years playing at Navy, Robinson served for two years as well, making him a 24-year-old rookie. Noel turns 21 in April.

If we look at non-rookies who have averaged that many steals and blocks, the full list of players in the last 20 years is: Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Shawn Marion, Ben Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko, Tracy McGrady, Chris Webber, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Robert Horry and the aforementioned Robinson. This is basically a list of Hall of Fame centers and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates.

Since Hinkie traded Michael Carter-Williams for the Lakers’ top five protected pick at the All-Star break, Noel has taken all aspects of his game to another level. In 10 games since the break, Noel is averaging 11.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.9 blocks in 33.9 minutes per game. He has made a much-improved 72 percent of his free throws on more than two extra attempts per game, via Basketball-Reference.

The Sixers have actually resembled an NBA team with Noel on the court in the last month. Take a look at Noel’s splits for net rating before and after the break:

via NBA.com/stats

via NBA.com/stats

Only Robinson and Olajuwon (four straight seasons!) have ever averaged greater than 2.0 steals and blocks in a season. Noel isn’t far off at 1.8 and 1.9 so far, and his post-break averages of 2.7 and 2.9 easily surpass that threshold. Robinson was 26 and Olajuwon did it from ages 25 to 28. Still not 21, Noel has the potential to be an all-time great defensive player.

Noel’s explosion in the month since trading Carter-Williams is probably not a coincidence. Carter-Williams was an extremely inefficient player in Philly and nearly always had the ball in his hands. The Sixers’ cycle of dumping non-stars is hard to stomach, but Hinkie and Co. clearly weren’t sold on him as their long-term point guard.

While some will point out that Philly plays at an intentionally high pace to increase counting stats (very valid in the case of Carter-Williams), Noel is only playing 30.8 minutes per game overall and 33.9 since the break. That’s easily near the bottom of the list of other players that averaged this many steals and blocks. He’s that good.

Consider that Noel is still just 20 and is playing in his first season after tearing his ACL gruesomely in college. If the increased free throw attempts and efficiency are any indication, he has plenty of room to grow his already historic game. The Sixers have a real keeper who’s already far more valuable than most are giving him credit for. Given the rarity of Noel’s season and what it portends for the future, he should be receiving strong Rookie of the Year consideration over Andrew Wiggins.

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