Yesterday, Nerlens Noel made his long awaited debut in an NBA game. Although it was just a Summer League exhibition, he created plenty of buzz with his play. He tallied 19 points on 6-11 from the floor and 7-7 (!) from the free throw line. He also chipped in 4 steals and a block.
His offensive game was prettier than I had expected, looking very fluid and coordinated on nearly all of his moves. Noel's footwork was more than adequate and his vision plus passing abilities are definitely underrated. The form on his shot was good and, not missing a single FT, gave hope of possible development of a mid-range game down the line. Brett Brown and his staff may have indeed worked some magic.
Be that as it may, I couldn't help but stare at the rebound column: a paltry two. In 26 minutes of action. Within just the first few moments of viewing, the lack of girth and aggression were readily apparent. Reportedly, Noel has gained approximately 16 pounds since the 2013 NBA combine, where he tipped the scales at 206 pounds. 222 pounds is an improvement, but it mirrors his playing weight during his lone year at Kentucky. It's not remotely enough. Neither was the fact that he failed to go exploding after the ball on rebounds. His lone block came after, seconds earlier, he gave up an offensive rebound to his assignment.
Now before I proceed any further, let me point out the purpose of this column isn't solely to decry Noel's lack of size. I fully am on board with a skinny big having every chance of being just as valuable as his much thicker counterpart. Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah have all proven this point over and over. Rather, it's all about fit.
New Orleans already possessed the best young lanky big in the game; consequently, the roster needed to take shape around Anthony Davis. Pairing Noel alongside him would have been too much of a good but same thing. There is no doubt the twin towers would have been able to influence a hell of a lot of shots, gallop down the court for easy fast breaks and use athleticism to their advantage to get around their opponents.
However, all that would have come at too steep a price. Offensively, both of them prefer operating from the high post. Defensively, positioning would have been an ever losing battle. On average, they would be giving up too much in the weight and strength department on a nightly basis. Worse, one of them would consistently be matched up against opposing starting centers. Anthony Davis has gone on record stating he views himself as a power forward. The organization has never wavered from this notion neither as evidenced by all the minutes Greg Stiemsma received a season ago.
Thus, Noel would have been tasked with holding down the fort against 250 pound brutes like DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol. Yesterday, we witnessed DeWayne Dedmon and Vernon Macklin keep Noel at bay. His 19 points were more box score than performance worthy. Against NBA caliber competition, it would have been less. The two rebounds, though, didn't need any translation at all. It was just one game, Noel's first in months, yet for whatever the reason, his teammate Hollis Thompson managed to nab 14 of them.
Noel's collegiate R40 statistic signals he'll be fine and for now, we must give him the benefit of the doubt. Where the worry should stem from is when Noel decides to start battling in the paint. In his first two seasons, Anthony Davis missed a total of 33 games. The Pelicans had a winning percentage of 39.7% with him, 29.0% without. This is relatively true of all great players, but can also similarly echo important role players, the part I foresee Noel fulfilling someday.
Noel's frame is very narrow, noticeably smaller than that of the Unibrow. Nevertheless, Philadelphia is committed to playing him exclusively at the 5. After watching him take some physical shots, where he wasn't even looking to mix it up, I've got serious doubts about that lasting successfully. AD has not participated in 20% of all possible games in his career at power forward. Marcus Camby, who Noel has been compared to by John Calipari, consistently missed chucks of games in his first 6 seasons.
Missed games are not a recipe for success. It slaughtered the Pelicans a season ago. Meanwhile, those that avoided DNP's, were normally very successful. The Trail Blazers improved by 21 games in the win column and a significant part of that can be attributed to their starters collectively missing only 13 games. Scanning the list of past champions, they've mostly all avoided being severely hampered by prolonged player absences.
There still remains a significant yearning to see Davis be given the opportunity to play the center position on a full-time basis. Even better would have been seeing a defensive clone of him on the floor. Two sets of incredible shot-blocking and steal-inducing arms. However, Monty Williams' stubbornness has grown on me -- Davis is far too important in the overall scheme of things. Protecting him as best we can should probably supercede consistent mismatches.
Considering Noel's similar attributes, the NBA landscape still requiring plenty of banging size and the prevalence of injury, Dell Demps saw a redundancy. He could have taken a chance on pairing the two explosive athletes together, but it never outweighed the inherent risks. As Rohan recently pointed out, it's rare top tier athletes are made available. Demps traded for one in Jrue Holiday, sending out a role player, who could be elite, and a 2014 draft pick.
So far, it hasn't worked out well, and invariably, naysayers of the deal can be found everywhere. However, after witnessing just one meaningless game by our former 6th round pick, I maintain our organization made the right decision. What I can't justify though, is how the five teams ahead of us in the 2013 NBA draft passed on a talent that all of their rosters could have used effectively.