Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Continuing Ascension of Nerlens Noel

Fly Nerlens Fly
Last night in South Phillly, the most satisfying franchise in town -- yes, the tank-tastic 76ers, who at least seem to have a coherent plan and competent general management, unlike every other team that's local -- lost to the Bulls in overtime. Through injury and enforced rest, Chicago didn't have SG Jimmy Butler, PG Derrick Rose, PF Taj Gibson or C Joakim Noah, and that kind of JV Stars tends to happen a lot against one of the weakest and youngest teams in recent NBA history. The Sixers fell behind by as much as 20, came roaring back behind good defense and some solid work by their unclaimed freight PGs, missed a manageable shot late that could have won it, then got steamrolled by PG Aaron Brooks in overtime. But none of that really matters very much, and isn't what I wanted to talk about.

Rather, I want to get get into a few small but highly telling points. First, that when the Sixers came back to take a small lead, the bench erupted as if they were going to go to the Finals. Armchair psychiatry happens a lot in pro hoop, because the players don't wear helmets and their body language is incredibly unguarded, and as such, it's mostly bunk... but still, here's a team filled with strangers (25 different guys have seen court time this year, honest), with many of the guys on the floor not having much more than a few months in each other's company, and they are still marking out for each other. It's nice, and speaks volumes as to why no one in town wants anyone other than HC Brett Brown at the helm. And hope like hell that he actually gets a team to coach, and soon.

Second... with the exception of Brooks, Pau Gasol was the best player on the floor tonight. He finished with 27 and 16 on 13 of 25 shooting, and was dominant for solid stretches of the game. He's been one of the best offensive big men in the game this year, and has been Chicago's most consistent player. He also got Nerlens Noel in foul trouble, so when Noel re-entered the game with the Bulls up one and 4:22 left, he had five fouls. Here's what happened next, at least the stuff that concerns Noel.

3:51 left - Nikola Mirotic goes back door and scores off an E'Twaun Moore assist. Noel contests the shot, then pulls off at the last second, protecting the sixth foul. I know this seems like a small thing, but still, good awareness. Bulls go up by four.

3:14 - Hollis Thompson misses a deep three in the middle of the clock. Noel shows good quicks for the offensive board, and even better wheels on a dribble and scoop lay-up. For a guy with no handle at the start of the year, he's made great progress. This pulls Philly back within two.

2:30 - Thompson misses again from deep, and Noel grabs yet another board. Ten seconds later, PG Ish Smith, having a career night in points, connects from deep, and it's 89-88, Bulls.

1:55 - Gasol drives on Noel, plainly trying to collect the sixth foul. Nerlens stands his ground, doesn't buy a strong collection of fakes, and funnels his man into Mbah a Moute, who strips Gasol. Just a great defensive possession by the rook.

1:39 - After a Smith miss, Gasol is back to work, this time trying to pump fake Noel into a ticky tack foul off his jumper. Nerlens contests it cleanly, bothering Gasol's rhythm and line, and collects the defensive board. Again, rookie with five fouls against a possible Hall of Fame big man, and this time, Noel was on an island. Crowd really started to get into this, by the way.

1:07 - Gasol again, Noel again. Missed jumper, Mbah a Moute with the board. On the subsequent possession, Smith gets to the line and gives the Sixers a one point lead. (The last minute saw Brooks hit a tying three, Mbah a Moute miss the possible winning 16 footer, and nothing too germane to my Noel study.)

So, check it out. With five fouls and iso coverage on Gasol, Noel makes a half dozen big, big plays and helps lead his team to a very real chance of pulling off their second straight home win against the beast of the lEast. (Atlanta went down to the Sixers over the weekend, by the way.) He finished with an 8-15-1 line on 4 of 9 from the field and 0 of 4 from the line, with 4 steals and 2 blocks. And this was, really, one of his worst games since the All-Star Break, against one of his toughest opponents.

Oh, and earlier in the game, he had the block of the night, a straight up Grown Ass Man denial at the rim on poor Tony Snell, where he showed surprising strength and not a small amount of nasty, all while being form perfect at the rim. Watch it and try not to giggle.

He's also in the top 10 in the entire NBA in steals, and going to be the first rook since David Robinson (!) to be in the top 10 in that category and blocked shots. The points and boards are both up 3.3 since the Break, and the FT shooting is up 10 points (to 67%, getting there) as well. In March, he's averaging a double-double (10.7/12.5), with a ridiculous 2.0 blocks and 3.7 steals. Remember, he was supposed to fall apart without Michael Carter-Williams around, too.

Last moment of goodness: Noel is 20 years old.

Which is why I'm finding myself watching more and more of the Sixers, and feeling better and better about the time spent...

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