How Knicks' Nerlens Noel is holding down the fort in Mitchell Robinson's absence

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Rafael Canton
·4 min read
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Nerlens Noel drives to basket
Nerlens Noel drives to basket

The Knicks' roster has surprised this season, with quality play and depth standing out. Two-deep at every position, the Knicks have the ability to withstand injuries. When starting center Mitchell Robinson went down with a fracture in his right hand that required surgery, the team was able to use the "next man up" mentality and start Nerlens Noel in Robinson’s stead.

In his eighth season, Noel has never wowed anyone on offense, but he's grown into one of the better defenders at his position over time. Last year, Noel had a great year in Oklahoma City as a backup center to Steven Adams. When the Thunder reached the playoffs, Noel played a part as a rim protector who could switch onto perimeter players as well. Though he didn't dominate the stat sheet with points or rebounds, Noel's defensive presence aided the Thunder as they nearly upset the Houston Rockets in the opening round.

In free agency, Noel signed a one-year, $5 million deal this offseason with the Knicks. Noel has a similar skill set to Robinson, allowing the Knicks to have a rim protector on the floor at all times. While it wasn't a flashy addition at the time, Noel has allowed the Knicks to hold down the fort while Robinson recovers. The team has gone 2-1 since Robinson's injury against the Wizards last week.

The number one skill that Noel provides is rim protection. Noel is fearless in the paint, contesting nearly every shot attempt in the painted area. Despite playing just 19 minutes a game, Noel is fifth in the NBA in blocks per game (1.9). According to the NBA Stats page, Noel is third in opponent’s field goal percentage (46.8%) among all players that have defended at least 100 shots at the rim this season.

The Knicks are actually defending better as a team with Noel on the court (103.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). That rating would be ranked No. 1 in the NBA. Noel's ability to cover ground and run the floor makes him a unique defensive weapon for the Knicks.

Offense has been a different story for Noel. He's not particularly skilled in any area, and it shows with a weaker passing team in the Knicks. New York is second-to-last in assist percentage this season. Last season, Noel had his best offensive season, averaging 7.4 points on 68.4% shooting in a similar role with the Thunder.

A significant part of Noel's success in Oklahoma City was the passers he played with. Guards Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder all excel in the pick-and-roll, and Noel benefitted from that. The lack of easy setups and finishes has led to Noel averaging the lowest amount of points per minute of his career so far this season.

If there's one difference in Noel and Robinson, it's the consistent ability to be a lob threat. Noel has hands of stone, and seems to have at least one possession a game where he fumbles a pass. Unable to provide any perimeter shooting, Noel cramps the team's spacing on offense as well.

With Robinson expected to miss 4-6 weeks, the question will be if the Knicks want to add another center in case of emergency. Veteran Taj Gibson has filled in as the new backup center, but at 35, it wouldn't hurt to add an end of the bench option.

The other option is the Knicks utilizing the Julius Randle at center option with Obi Toppin at the four. The pairing recently saw some minutes in the Knicks' Monday night victory against the Atlanta Hawks after Noel and Gibson both got into foul trouble.

Realistically, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has preferred to run with a defensive-minded center on the court at all times. That will not change based on the results which have allowed New York to be in the playoff race despite the team being ranked 24th in offensive efficiency.

Even with his limited offensive ability, Noel has excelled in his current role. Noel's low usage rate on offense does fit with a roster filled with shot creators like Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Derrick Rose, and Immanuel Quickley.

Despite his weaknesses, Noel is a plus on the court for the Knicks and has become an under-the-radar addition that has minimized the absence of one of the Knicks’ most important players.