By LARRY VAUGHT
9:47 AM EST, November 18, 2012
LEXINGTON - He was the nation’s No. 1 recruit and known for his shot-blocking skills. But what was either overlooked or unknown about Nerlens Noel is that he’s an energy guy.
Maybe Noel isn’t going to be this year’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for Kentucky, but the freshman center sure looks like he’s going to have to be the Wildcats’ catalyst, and he certainly only enhanced that belief with his play Friday in their 101-49 victory over Lafayette at Rupp Arena.
“The thing I'm telling our guys, the energy that Nerlens plays with, if I can get all my guys playing with that kind of energy, think about what we'd become as a team. Now we're aware of the vision I have with us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Noel’s numbers were good. He was 6 for 8 from the field and 3 for 5 at the foul line to score 15 points. He grabbed a game-high seven rebounds and blocked one shot. But he also had four assists and a team-high four steals in 28 minutes.
Remember, Noel was touted as a better high school shot-blocker than Anthony Davis, the player who led Kentucky to a national title last year while sweeping the national player of the year awards, and the player who went on to win an Olympic gold medal. But after three games he has more steals (10) than blocks (7).
“I have always been a relatively high-energy guy, but now since I'm at a higher level I have to bring it every night. I just always have to be active for my team, make opportunities for the fast break and getting steals on the floor. I'm just doing it for my team to get going,” Noel said.
Has he always been a guy so willing to do whatever it takes to help a team?
“Yeah, yeah, I've always been on the floor. It's the only way you are going to get that ball,” he said.
Calipari pleaded with his team to follow Noel’s example.
“He was coming into every huddle, (and) I was telling the team, ‘Give him a hand. The guy's diving on the floor, playing with energy. Would the rest of you please look at him and try to do what he's doing, or do you think just let him do that and you're not going to do it?’” Calipari said. “I told Nerlens just keep doing it, and they'll get it because it becomes embarrassing when he's diving and you're jogging or you're standing straight up and get beat on the back door, and this kid's diving on the floor.
“You all (in the media) start writing like why is this kid not playing? It's not just Alex (Poythress). It's Archie (Goodwin), Jarrod (Polson) on the back cut, and all of a sudden Nerlens is covering for everybody. The issue is then he goes to block the shot in the lane. He's doing what we're asking. Last year someone always picked up Anthony’s man. This year no one's picking up his man? Why? Because they're running out. They're not even attempting to rebound.
“When people say he's going after every blocked shot, no he's not. He's playing how we want him to. What's happening is the back line defense isn't playing. They're stopping and not only not helping, they're running out. But that's all the stuff we've been working on.”
This was a game Kentucky figured to win big — and that was before Lafayette’s best player (6-9 Dan Trist) and top returning scorer injured his ankle in the pregame practice and could not play. Yet early in the second half, with Kentucky comfortably ahead, Noel played with the passion of a player trying to make a name for himself instead of a player most expect will be a 2013 NBA first-round draft pick:
- He got the ball inside, looked and fed Poythress for an easy score.
- On Lafayette’s ensuing possession, he tapped the ball away, dove on the floor and somehow got the ball ahead to Polson for an easy score.
- A minute later, he knocked the ball away from a Lafayette player at the top of the key, outran a guard to get the ball and then drove the rest of the way to the basket to dunk.
Those plays all came in a two-minute stretch in which his athleticism, hustle and unselfishness were all on display, and Calipari hopes teammates were noticing.
“Hopefully I will be like Nerlens. He is a character out there, but hopefully I can have his energy out there,” said Poythress, who had 22 points and five rebounds.
Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon watched Noel play in high school. He was more than a bit impressed with what he saw Friday.
“I think he’s terrific. He’s getting better at his post moves around the basket. I think every week he’s going to get better,” O’Hanlon said. “Certainly he can clog up the middle. They’re going to get out and pressure us, try to force us to the basket and try to speed us up, which they did. He’s a handful back there. Our perimeter game is not going to be nearly as good because of his presence out there. I think offensively he’s just getting better and better when I watched him on film and then tonight.”
Noel doesn’t care whether he’s blocking a shot to disrupt a game or making a steal to get the ball for his team.
“Shot-blocking is more difficult at this level, so if I can get a steal to get the ball, that’s great,” Noel said. “Steals are steals. They get you the ball, too. I just play with high energy to get the team going. That’s what I always try to do. Seeing others diving on the floor for balls gets me going. So if I do it, hopefully it gets my teammates going.
“I have to make sure I really get the guys going. Whether it has to go through me to get the energy level up, that's how it can be, but I'll do anything to help my team.”
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