The comparisons are always there, hanging in the air like a floater in the lane. For Nerlens Noel being the heir apparent to Anthony Davis has been as inescapable as opponents find his propensity for blocking shots.
Nerlens Noel has 95 blocks through 20 games, just ahead of Anthony Davis' record pace (file photo)
Noel is not Davis, but he doesn't particularly mind the inevitable (and sometimes lazy) storyline that ties the two defensive czars together. With every volleyball spike of a poor opponent's shot attempt Noel more clearly defines just how alike – and different – he is with Davis. And he's fine with that as he begins challenging Davis' shot blocking prowess.
Although he started well off Davis' record pace of 186 blocked shots for a freshman, Noel has closed the gap entirely and is neck and neck with Kentucky's former national champion and National Player of the Year.
“I don't keep track but some people tell me what the numbers are through games or something,” Noel said. “That's something I do want to break, but that's not really the focus of the season. I'm just doing my best for this team so we can have the best chance to go as far as we can.”
Noel etched his name into Kentucky lore with a dominating performance against Ole Miss, blocking a school-record 12 shots in the Cats' road victory against the No. 16 Rebels. He swatted six shots after picking up his fourth foul, a testament to how much discipline he has developed after falling victim to shot fakes far too often earlier this season.
“At the beginning of the season, I had a tendency to leave my feet, being too anxious to block shots,” Noel said. “And that's when I was coming up with maybe only two, three, four blocks a game. Coming from high school, it was just a whole different type of game. But Coach Cal definitely helped me with that, did a lot of drills that got me right. I just got really adjusted to this game at this level, and it's really come a long way defensively for me.
“The timing's definitely better. You definitely get a feel for what players at this level's tendencies are, 'cause it's a lot different than high school. They try to get more body contact and really try to take advantage of shot-blockers. I try to keep it equal. There's times when I won't try to block the shot – just hands straight up – and just always have them guessing what you're going to do next.”
The results have been staggering. Entering Saturday's game against Texas A&M the 6-foot-11 freshman forward had blocked 49 shots in his first seven Southeastern Conference games, a stunning 7.0 per outing. In addition to erasing a dozen Ole Miss shot attempts, he victimized Alabama eight times and Auburn seven times. He also slapped away seven of the Aggies' shots in the teams' first meeting last month.
Noel's teammates know all too well what it's like trying to find the tiniest window of opportunity against their ball-hawking big man. Even for them the comparisons to Davis are always there.
“Nerlens makes you think there's a shot there and then just erases it off the backboard,” junior guard Jon Hood said when asked who was the better shot blocker. “Anthony would just run down the lane with you, jump with you, and just hang in the air. I don't know.”
Which is worse?
“Nerlens, because you think you have a shot and then here comes the flat top,” Hood cracked.
Intimidation has certainly become a major part of Noel's game. Even before he set a record against Ole Miss the Rebels' players and coaches were talking about his ability to completely change the dynamic of an entire game. When he did just that despite scoring two points and taking only one shot from the field it was as if he had nestled in the far recesses of the Rebels' minds.
“A lot of people think it’s about scoring, but every team is always going to have its given scorers, two or three guys that are always going to get the majority of the buckets,” Noel said. “Defense is something that’s undervalued on some teams. It can change the whole game in significant ways.”
However Noel finishes his collegiate career in comparison to Davis he understands this is who is he and what he's comfortable being.
“I didn't think of it as otherworldly,” he said. “I know that's one of my better parts to my game is blocking shots, and I do my best to do it at a high rate as well. I'm never sure how many blocks I have. I just go out there and block as many as I can.”