Is Nerlens Noel Stealing and Blocking His Way Into Rookie of the Year Consideration?
Most stories surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers this year have been pretty negative, ranging from how close they came to having the worst start to a season in NBA history, all the way up to their somewhat confusing trade deadline moves two weeks ago. In the midst of all that, however, Nerlens Noel has turned what was a relatively slow start into a solid rookie season.
Since the All-Star break, Noel has averaged 12.1 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 steals, and 3.5 blocks through eight games, while shooting 46.4% from the field and 75.0% from the free throw line (up from a pre-All-Star split of 44.5% and 56.1%). Those numbers are absolutely bonkers for an NBA player of any experience level, let alone for a rookie.
Especially when we're talking about a relatively unproven rookie coming back from an ACL tear and subsequent surgery. Noel -- the sixth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft -- missed the entirety of what would've been his first season in 2013-14 while recovering from said injury, which he suffered in college while playing for the Kentucky Wildcats.
A bumpy start to this season was to be expected when you consider the nature of how returns to basketball usually go after such an injury, combined with the layoff and usual obstacles that come with being an unseasoned first-year NBAer. Even so, Noel has only missed four Sixers games this season, starting 53 of the 57 he's played, and averaging 30.6 minutes per game in the process.
His full-season averages are pretty excellent, even with his early-season feeling-it-out period dragging them down ever so slightly. On the year as a whole, Noel is averaging 8.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.9 blocks per contest while shooting 44.8% from the floor and 61.4% from the line. He leads all rookies in rebounds, steals, and blocks, while coming in second in scoring behind Andrew Wiggins.
In fact, those defensive and rebounding numbers put him in some pretty elite company. Here's the complete list of NBA rookies that have ever averaged Noel's rebound, steal, and block numbers as a baseline.
That's right. We're talking one of the game's most legendary centers and Noel as the only ones to do it. Obviously Noel's line doesn't come anywhere close to David "The Admiral" Robinson's rookie season (which, by the way, holy crap), but his efforts this year shouldn't get buried by the Sixers' general ineptness, nor by Andrew Wiggins' flashier campaign.
The Rookie of the Year honor typically goes to a first-year player who puts up big numbers in points, assists, and rebounds, more so than someone who has a big impact on his team in more subtle ways or on the defensive end (see Carter-Williams, Michael). This fact makes Wiggins and his 15.9 points per game seem like a relative shoo-in for the award, and he'll admittedly be deserving if he earns it.
That said, the Sixers have gone from being our 26th-ranked defense last season (with a Defensive Rating of 109.9) to the 13th-ranked team on our NBA Team Rankings this year (with a Rating of 105.1). Noel is clearly a big part of that swing, considering the Sixers allow a mere 100.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor this year (compared to 105.2 when he's off) and that he only allows opponents to shoot 45.8% at the rim in 9.0 shots per game (the second lowest percentage among players that face that many attempts, behind only Serge Ibaka ).
Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie has shown that he's more than willing to move warm bodies for picks, just like he did recently with last year's Rookie of the Year, the aforementioned Michael Carter-Williams. One would have to imagine, however, that Noel will be the first major building block to make Hinkie's whole plan start making sense going forward.
If Nerlens continues to impress, if Joel Embiid and Dario Saric can join the Sixers and live up to their potential, and if one or more of the Sixers' 100 picks (give or take) in the next few years hits, this Sixers team could be really scary in a year or seven.
That's a lot of ifs, but amidst another depressing rebuilding season in Philadelphia, Nerlens Noel is the one bright spot that makes discussions of that nature seem closer to possibility than fantasy. At least Sixers fans have that.