Leap Year

by July 05, 2012
nerlens noel


Originally published in SLAM 160

words Ryan Jones | portraits Trevor Paulhus

A year and a half ago, I interviewed current cover subject Anthony Davis for a story that ran in this very spot. At the time, Davis was a high school star from Chicago, a game-changing big man on his way to Kentucky as the jewel of another loaded John Calipari recruiting class. That’s why we wrote about him, but he was better known in the mainstream media for recruiting drama that was never confirmed and had nothing to do with why anyone should have cared about him in the first place.

A year and a half later, nearly all of the above applies to Nerlens Noel. If somehow you don’t know: Noel is a 6-11, 215-pound center from the Boston area who, after he reclassified as a member of the 2012 class (after deciding to skip a post-grad year that would’ve kept him in the Class of ’13), challenged Shabazz Muhammad for the No. 1 spot in the class. Like Davis, he’s a defensive monster, and like Davis, he committed to play for the Wildcats with a national title and eventual NBA Lottery ticket well in mind.

Unfortunately, like Davis, he’s dealing with off-court nonsense that’s not of his own doing—in Noel’s case, a potential NCAA investigation into the alleged shady dealings of advisors and AAU coaches who may or may not have tried to ride Noel’s talent to personal wealth. In that, he’s fortunate to have a guy like Davis to talk to. Not that the once and future Wildcat bigs dwell on such negativity, but they do talk, and it has come up.

“He just told me, ‘Don’t let the media get to you,’” Noel says. “If they’re gonna try to make all this publicity out of it, just come and ball, focus on academics and basketball. That’s it.”

Smart advice, and not something Noel should have much trouble with in Lexington. His path to the current one-and-done destination of choice has taken a few turns: Born outside Boston to Haitian immigrant parents, Noel transferred two years ago from local Everett (MA) High to Tilton, a New Hampshire prep school. He was on schedule to finish at Tilton next spring, but in February he decided to reclassify and finish high school this year. “It was on my mind the whole year—even last year I had some thoughts about it,” Noel says. “I just thought another year of high school wouldn’t help me as much as going to college, with the resources they have to help me develop.”

Development is the goal for Noel, a natural and relentless shot-blocker who needs to work on his offensive game and could stand to pack some more bulk on to his lanky frame. Kentucky’s recent run of NCAA success and NBA Lottery placement made the Wildcats an obvious choice for Noel, and it didn’t hurt that his mom was cool with his decision. “It wasn’t an option for me to go somewhere she didn’t want,” he admits.

His plans for next season: Keeping his now signature high-top fade, and helping the ’Cats defend the National Championship that Davis and Co. just won. As for all that drama? Nobody remembers the fake controversy around Davis’ recruitment. They only remember that he dominated the college scene, and they know he’s about to be the No. 1 pick in the Draft. If he’s going to follow Davis’ path, he might as well follow it all the way.