If there’s one thing that coach John Calipari — and Kentucky fans — have to already know about Nerlens Noel is that he is fearless. Has to be. How else could he not be afraid to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Davis?
The 6-11 Noel, the nation’s top-ranked recruit, announced Wednesday that he would play his college basketball at Kentucky rather than Georgetown or Syracuse. That immediately elevated Calipari’s recruiting class to No. 1 — he’s now four-for-four on No. 1 classes at Kentucky — and Thursday ESPN.com’s Andy Katz already had the Wildcats third in his preseason poll behind Indiana and Louisville.
Now remember both Indiana and Louisville return veteran teams. The Cardinals lost to UK’s championship team in the Final Four. The Hoosiers fell to UK¿in the Sweet Sixteen. But both have almost all their key players back along with talented newcomers.
Kentucky loses senior Darius Miller, its inspirational senior. It will lose Davis, the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft. It likely will lose sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, who helped UK¿reach the 2011 Final Four and turned that experience into a national title in 2012. It likely will lose Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, perhaps a top five draft pick, and point guard Marquis Teague, a first-round choice and maybe even a lottery pick.
That’s why Noel was a must-get recruit for Calipari to go with five-star signees Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, four-star signee Willie Cauley, returning forward Kyle Wiltjer, transfer point guard Ryan Harrow who sat out last season and a hopefully healthy Jon Hood.
Noel is already being compared to Davis because of his shot blocking ability. He may be great, but remember Davis was sensational. He shattered UK’s single season record. He led the nation in blocks — and altered shots if that statistic was kept. He intimidated opponents of all sizes, the main reason UK¿led the nation in field goal percentage defense.
Davis was the national freshman of the year. He was the national defensive player of the year. He was the consensus overall national player of the year. He was named most outstanding player in the Final Four despite scoring just one field goal in the championship game. That’s how good he was.
“Between you and me, I'm shocked at people comparing Nerlens Noel to Anthony Davis. You saw late in the year just how talented Davis is stepping away from the rim and putting the ball on the floor. Noel doesn't have all those extra wrinkles to his game,” said one NBA scout who watched Davis play frequently and has also seen Noel already since he’s being projected as a possible top pick in the 2013 draft.
Davis came to UK¿with huge expectations and exceeded them. Noel knows that. He could have gone to Syracuse or Georgetown and not faced the pressure of being the next Anthony Davis.
Instead, he saw what Calipari did for Davis and embraced being UK’s next dominant big man.
Calipari is credited for developing point guards. He has sent Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight to the NBA as high first-round picks. Wall had the pressure of following Rose and Evans. Knight had to follow Rose, Evans and Wall. This year Teague had to follow all four.
But none had to fill the shoes — or try to fill the shoes — that Noel will. Davis might have had the best single season in UK¿basketball history. Certainly an argument can be made that he did. There’s no way Noel can match what he did. But that’s not a knock on Noel because no one ever has.
Of course, no one — including his parents — expected Davis to have the dominant year he did. Good year, yes. Record-setting year, no. Maybe Noel can be just as big a surprise as Davis. The main obstacle is that Noel’s team won’t have a Jones, Lamb or Miller to provide Final Four experience/leadership.
However, Knight’s team didn’t, either, and he got UK¿to the Final Four. Noel and others will be fun to watch next year and Noel not being scared of the UK¿mystique or expectations tells me he’ll listen to Calipari, buy into the team-first philosophy and very likely help make UK¿a Final Four contender once again by the time March rolls around.