Can Nerlens Noel Outperform His Fantasy Basketball Draft Cost?
Despite the lofty finish, Noel heads into his second season with plenty of questions surrounding him.
Can he continue to be a defensive powerhouse? Will Jahlil Okafor eat into his value? Is there room to improve his offensive game? Entering his sophomore season, what do we make of Noel and where should you target him in fantasy drafts?
Let's break it down.
Rookie Season Results
Noel had an uneventful start to his career in the NBA when he missed the entire 2013-14 year due to a knee injury he suffered while still at Kentucky. The 76ers then played it safe with Noel, waiting until October 29, 2014, for him to make his NBA debut.
For the first 20 games of the season, Noel could not do anything right. He posted lowly averages of 7.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists while shooting .438 from the floor and a horrendous .479 from the free throw line. Even his 1.6 blocks and 1.4 steals per game could not make up for the 81 Offensive Rating and 21.4 percent turnover percentage. After being out of the game for over a year and a half, rust could easily have been the reason for Noel's shaky start. Being a 20-year-old rookie does not help either. Adjusting to the NBA level of play takes everyone time to figure out, even the can't-miss prospects.
Naturally, over the next 30 games, Noel saw a slight increase in his numbers across the board. But most importantly, for fantasy purposes, he raised his free throw shooting from catastrophic to just terrible. From mid-December until the All-Star-Break, Noel hit 61 percent of his free throws. The 6'11" rookie was more careful with the basketball as well, dropping his turnovers from 2.3 to 1.7 per game. Noel had his game trending in the right direction but was still not much more than a reserve big man in fantasy.
Then after the All-Star break, something clicked.
From February 20 and on, it was an entirely different story. In hindsight, we should have seen it coming. Given the fact that Noel missed the entire 2013-14 NBA season, there was no doubt he would start slow. Most surgeons or physical therapists say that it takes nine months to a year to recover from an ACL tear, but another year (or two total) before an athlete resembles his old self on the court. Noel had his ACL surgery March 12, 2013.
After the break, Noel found his groove offensively, boosting his scoring by over 60 percent. With his free throw shooting at 65 percent down the stretch, Noel wasn't a complete catastrophe there anymore either. With his defensive and offensive game humming, Noel was looking like the franchise leader the Sixers were looking for when they traded for him back on draft day in 2013.
Even as great as his post-All-Star numbers are, there is still concern on how Noel will perform offensively in 2015-16. The main worry, besides his poor shooting, is what his role will be on offense next season due to the new additions and changes to the Sixers' roster.
With the third pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the 76ers selected Okafor, a center out of Duke. Okafor's abilities and weaknesses are the antitheses of Noel's. He is an offensive threat down low. His defense, however, leaves a lot to be desired. With their polar opposite strengths, Okafor and Noel seem like the perfect pair in the frontcourt. Although, the pairing brings a lot of uncertainty in regards to Noel's place in the Sixers offense.
The drafting of Okafor also marks a shift for Noel. Last season he spent 94 percent of his time on the floor at the five spot, but with Okafor taking over in the middle, Noel will be playing primarily at power forward. While his defensive skills won't be affected much, if at all, by the position change, his offensive game will need to expand.
Being aware of the situation, the sophomore player has been working hard all offseason on adding a mid-range jumper to his repertoire. If Noel can hone that shot and be a productive power forward, his scoring numbers could hit upwards of 15 points per game. But if things go awry, there is a chance that Noel puts up single digits again and tanks his field goal percentage in the process.
To be successful in fantasy basketball, you need to find players that provide unusual stats for their position. A small forward with blocks. A big man who can dish or hit threes. By getting these categories from unexpected sources, you balance out your squad ten-fold. There in turn lies the best part of Noel's value in fantasy.
For sure Noel is a master at defense. Last year, he ranked in the top 10 with 142 blocks and the top 25 with 426 defensive rebounds last year. But the Sixers' center also ranked 10th in steals per game at 1.8. Only one other center-eligible player ranked in the top 50 for steals per game, DeMarcus Cousins who ranked 23rd. Noel's prowess in steals sets him far apart from other center-eligible players in fantasy.
After settling in during his rookie year, the expectation is there for Noel to take a leap in 2015-16. Already a top-10 source of steals and blocks, we can expect that to continue unless there's a drastic shift in usage. If Noel can maintain the scoring and rebound pace he set the last two months of the season, he can push his way into the top 20 in fantasy. But where should you draft him?
Right now, Noel's ADP in Yahoo leagues is 46. Last year, he finished the full season ranked 55 in nine-category fantasy leagues, but, as I said before, was 14th from the All-Star break on. Noel should be closer to his rank over the last two months than to his overall season-long finish.
The massive upside with Noel is apparent. He could end up being a huge steal if he continues to go in the fourth or fifth round. But with his potential to provide a top-20 return on your investment, I would not hesitate to take the 76er in the third round of re-draft fantasy leagues.