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Game-changing Noel a good start

You have to a 21st Century player's ode to ABA hairstyles, but Nerlens Noel really would not have played well in the league where offense ruled.

Nerlens Noel was nation's leading shot-blocker until a knee injury ended his season. (Phil Sandlin/AP)
Nerlens Noel was nation's leading shot-blocker until a knee injury ended his season. (Phil Sandlin/AP)Read more

YOU HAVE TO LOVE a 21st Century player's ode to ABA hairstyles. Nerlens Noel, however, really would not have played well in the ABA where offense ruled. The freshman from Kentucky is a one-tool player whose tool changes games.

If you are looking for a highly skilled big man like last year's Kentucky freshman star Anthony Davis, stop looking. Noel's offense is grabbing a missed shot and stuffing it. Or beating everybody down the floor and dunking it. He arrived in college with a limited offensive game and leaves the same way.

The three best skills in college basketball last season were Ben McLemore's pure shot, Victor Oladipo's athleticism and Noel's defense. You can make a pretty good case that Noel's defense was the best single skill.

In six January games against SEC opponents, Noel blocked an insane 46 shots. He got 57 rebounds in those six games and 36 more in the last three full games before he blew out his knee on Feb. 12 at Florida. In just 765 college minutes, he blocked 105 shots and had 50 steals.

His best statistical game for UK was against Texas A & M - 15 points, 11 rebounds, 7 blocks, 6 assists and 4 steals. His most significant game was against a very good Mississippi team

Playing for a dysfunctional Kentucky team at Ole Miss on Jan. 29, Noel took one shot and missed. He took eight free throws and missed six. Yet, he completely dominated the game, with 12 blocks, five of them down the stretch while he was playing with four fouls and simply would not let anybody get the ball to the rim. He never did foul out. UK won, 87-74, its most significant win in an underachieving season that went completely off the rails after Noel was injured.

Coming out of high school a year earlier than expected when he reclassified, Noel was the most heralded recruit from Massachusetts since Patrick Ewing 30 years before. There was no argument about the best high school player in America in 2011-12. It was Noel. Kentucky won the recruiting battle because they win just about all recruiting battles these days.

Noel is an absolutely amazing athlete who can get from one end of the court to the other so fast you think he had a head start. When he gets in the vicinity of the rim, he rarely lays it in. He is a power dunker in the Dwight Howard mold. He is also a free throw shooter in the Howard mold, making just 52.9 percent from the line as a freshman.

There is also the problem of that mending ACL and all the Andrew Bynum thoughts. Let's make a big leap and assume that Noel will come back perfectly healthy by Christmas and stay healthy for a 12-year career.

Then, the Sixers have the rarest NBA commodity these days - the rim protector in an era of free runs down the lane. As the NBA defensive rules are presently enforced, few of the great athletes can be defended off the dribble. Noel would be the insurance against all that penetration.

The obvious question is: who exactly is going to make a shot, especially a long shot, for the Sixers?

The only time Noel will ever get near the three-point line is during layup lines.

Michael Carter-Williams is definitely not a shooter. He shot 39.2 percent from the field, 29.2 percent from the three-point line and 69.4 percent from the foul line as the Syracuse point guard last season.

The Sixers obviously made the decision to blow it up and start over. If you are going to start from scratch and try to build a contender that will stand the test of time and your first decision is to get a potential defensive game changer, perhaps you got it right. But it will take time, perhaps a lot of time and plenty of good personnel decisions, before anybody really knows what getting Nerlens Noel will mean for a championship quest that is now at 30 years and counting.