Nerlens Noel’s defense has been invaluable for the Knicks

Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

The New York Knicks’ 2020 offseason was a rather uneventful one. Although the expectations weren’t nearly as big as they were in 2019, there was still plenty of talk around the Knicks making a move for one of the bigger free agents.

The Knicks came out of free agency with no big-names and instead left with some cheaper veteran players. Some fans were disappointed with the lack of new firepower, while others were happy with the prudent spending and focus on future flexibility. Either way, many of the Knicks signings have had a positive impact on the team this season, including 7th-year veteran Nerlens Noel.

Nerlens Noel, Knicks. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Nerlens Noel before the Knicks

Noel has been known for his defense throughout his career, and it’s what has kept him in the league since being drafted 6th overall in 2013. His elite defense has persisted for the Knicks this season.

Despite his high draft pick pedigree, Noel has been a journeyman in his NBA career to this point. The Knicks are Noel’s 4th team in his 7th year in the league. So while the expectations for Noel weren’t particularly high heading into the season, there’s actually some evidence that the signing was somewhat underappreciated at the time.

Last year, Noel played a role with the Oklahoma City Thunder that was similar to the one he has now with the Knicks. Noel appeared in 61 games and averaged 18.5 minutes for a Thunder team that shattered their low preseason expectations and finished 5th in the Western Conference.

Noel’s per-36-minutes stats held up with some of the best defensive centers in the game. Last season, his 12.9  shots contested per-36-minutes was 12th among all centers in the NBA. His defense off of the bench was important for a scrappy Thunder team. The Knicks saw that competitive defense and inked Noel to a 1-year deal worth 5 million dollars, and so far he’s been everything they’ve asked for.

Knicks: Nerlens Noel has been a defensive anchor

Just as he did for the Thunder in 2019-20, Nerlens Noel has come off of the bench for the Knicks this season to anchor the 2nd unit. Noel isn’t exactly a flashy player or a stat sheet stuffer, nor is he a fan-favorite, but he’s the got statistics to back up his strong play.

Noel currently ranks 4th among all centers in defensive rating and is 5th in the entire NBA in blocks, averaging 2.0 per game. His defense off of the bench has been important for a Knicks’ 2nd unit that isn’t as strong defensively as the team’s starters.

Now, the Knicks starting center Mitchell Robinson will be sidelined 6-8 weeks with a hand injury, and Noel will have to step into his starting role for an extensive period of time.

While Robinson has been a force in the paint for the Knicks this season, his offensive game, like Noel’s, leaves much to be desired. It’s a nice setup for the Knicks, as Noel’s impact on the game can help fill the void left by Robinson. Noel has even been an instrumental part of Robinson’s development this season.

Looking back to free agency, the Noel signing seemed insignificant at the time. Here we are 29 games into the season with Mitchell Robinson out for potentially 2 months, and this Knicks team has to be thankful they were able to add the veteran Noel.

It’s a classic example of a boring depth signing becoming significant later on in the season. Noel is someone who knows his strengths and knows how to play his role. The only thing the Knicks will ask him to do as a starter is to play more minutes — Don’t change your approach, just continue to be a strong defensive presence in the middle. It’s time for Noel to hold down the fort until Robinson returns.

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