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Blocks, steals and boards: Assessing Noel's defensive impact

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Nerlens Noel has 39 blocks and 28 steals through 10 games of his collegiate career. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Nerlens Noel has 39 blocks and 28 steals through 10 games of his collegiate career. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
By now, you've seen the breakdowns revealing just how similar Nerlens Noel's statistics through 10 games of his Kentucky career are to those of his predecessor, Anthony Davis.

Even though Noel and John Calipari insisted all preseason that the two big men should not be compared (a point that still stands, by the way), the fact of the matter is the two 6-foot-10 forwards don't look so different on paper.

The per-averages in points and rebounds (11.8 and 10.0 for Davis, 10.7 and 9.0 for Noel) are in the same ballpark. Noel is behind a bit in blocked shots (46-39, to be exact), but there's no shame in that given that Davis would go on to set UK and NCAA freshman records in the category. Davis has Noel in field-goal percentage (67.1-53.8), but Noel has almost twice as many steals (28-15).

That, along with Noel's bid to enter the record books in steals and blocks, has already been covered extensively in this blog post by Kyle Tucker. What I am more interested in determining exactly what all those statistics have meant to his team.

By the way, keep in mind that 10 games is a very small sample size.

Noel a wizard at keeping blocks in play

Noel arrived in Lexington with a reputation for emphatic blocked shots, which cast into doubt his ability to keep the ball in play. More than a month into the season, he is doing just fine with that.

Davis proved last year that a block that ends up in the hands of a teammate is much more valuable than one that ends up three rows into the stands. Amazingly, Noel has been even more effective than Davis at controlling his swats.

Let's take an inventory of Noel's 39 blocks based on play-by-play data.

  • 17 (43.6 percent) were rebounded by a teammate
  • Five (12.8 percent) were rebounded by Noel
  • One (2.6 percent) went out of bounds off an opponent
  • 13 (33.3 percent) were rebounded by an opponent
  • Three (7.7 percent) landed out of play

Noel's blocks have directly resulted in UK gaining possession 59.0 percent of the time, which is approximately a percentage point better than Davis last year. Moreover, an astounding 92.3 percent of Noel's blocks have either remained in play or went out of bounds off an opponent. By comparison, less than 80 percent of Davis blocks stayed in bounds.

On the 23 possessions that followed Noel blocks, the Wildcats have scored 25 points, many of which have come on fast breaks. When UK has scored after a Noel block, it has taken an average of 8.3 seconds to do so.

Now, here's a look at the kind of shots Noel has blocked.

  • 25 (64.1 percent) were jumpers
  • 13 (33.3 percent) were layups
  • One (2.6 percent) was a dunk

Most of Noel's blocks have come close to the basket. He is yet to block a 3-point attempt, which was a Davis specialty.

A look at Noel's thievery

Noel's 28 steals account for more than a third of UK's team total of 78. He ranks in the top 15 nationally in both total steals and steals per game and could top 100 for the season at his current pace, which would shatter Rajon Rondo's school record of 87. Noel also ranks 28th nationally in steal percentage at 5.38, according to kenpom.com, making him the only player taller than 6-7 to rank in the top 50.

Noel's steals have come in almost every conceivable way, ranging from pick-pocketing his man off the dribble to help defense to jumping a passing lane. That fact is proven by the following statistics.

14 (50 percent) of his steals came from players listed as forwards
10 (35.8 percent) came from players listed as guards
Four (14.3 percent) came from players listed as centers

UK has scored 33 points directly off Noel's 28 steals, not counting second-chance points. Those scores have come almost exclusively on fast breaks with the Cats needing an average of just 5.1 seconds to do their damage. UK's scores an average of 1.18 points per possession off Noel steals compared to just 1.11 overall.

Overall defensive impact

When UK gets a defensive stop, there's a pretty good chance Noel will be involved.

Combining steals and the blocks that immediately result in UK possessions, Noel has personally accounted for 51 stops. Adding in his 60 defensive rebounds and taking away the five rebounds he has off his own blocks, Noel has had a direct statistical hand in the end of 106 opponent possessions. On the season, UK's opponents have had an average of 69.9 possessions per game, or 699 for all 10 games so far this season. Blocks, steals or rebounds by Noel have ended 15.2 percent of them.

Taking that a step further, Noel has played 74.5 percent of a possible 400 minutes this season. Using averages, he has played approximately 521 defensive possessions, meaning he has accounted for stops on 20.3 percent of them.

Going even deeper, UK's opponents have scored an average of 0.89 points per possession. With that number as the basis, the Cats have gotten defensive stops on an estimated 288 possessions with Noel on the floor. A Noel block, steal or defensive rebound has ended 36.8 percent of them.

When you consider this, along with the fact that the Cats have scored an average of 5.8 points per game directly off his steals and blocks, it's clear how important Noel is to UK's success.

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