- Tennessee Volunteers - January 24, 2017 - 9:00 PM EST - Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn. - ESPN
With players on campus and the new season just around the corner, CoachCal.com will be profiling UK’s five newcomers, Julius Mays, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel, in an exclusive CoachCal.com “Meet the Wildcats” series. The series concludes with Noel.
One became the No. 1 recruit out of nowhere, transforming from an unheard of guard to the No. 1 recruit in the nation. The other one shot to the top of the rankings after reclassifying from the 2013 class to the 2012.
One broke the NCAA freshman single-season blocked shots record a year ago. The other is supposed to be the best high school shot blocker since Greg Oden.
Both were No. 1-ranked recruits who headlined another top-rated John Calipari recruiting class, both bear unmistakable physical features and both were expected to lead Kentucky to a national championship.
But Anthony Davis 2.0, Nerlens Noel is not. He neither claims nor tries to be. Noel is a different player, and as he embarks on his first season at Kentucky, he wants to be a separate man with a unique path.
“It’s just people talking off what they see,” Noel said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “We’re both different in our own ways. We both block shots. That’s a similarity, but at the end of the day I’m who I am and he is who he is.”
Davis left an imprint on Kentucky and college basketball that may never be filled again. In what some are calling the best year ever for a college basketball player, Davis broke NCAA records, earned national player of the year awards, won the national championship, went No. 1 in the NBA Draft and captured an Olympic gold medal.
To ask or expect Noel to come close to Davis’ unbelievable feats seems unfair if not unreasonable, even for the No. 1 freshman in the country
“Those are big expectations,” Noel admitted, seemingly comfortable with the Jolly Green Giant shoes some hope he can step into. “Right now, through these two months (before the season), I think I’ve got a lot of hard work to put in. Like (head athletic trainer) Chris Simmons told me, Rome wasn’t built in one day. I’ve just got to stay focused, work hard and I’ll get there.”
For all their similarities, Noel’s path to the University of Kentucky was certainly a bit different than Davis’.
Groomed by a football family in a football town, Noel toyed with dreams of carrying the pigskin. He grew up playing Pop Warner, and his first high school, Everett High School, came within a score of winning the Eastern Massachusetts finals.
He played just about every skill position as a kid, but like UK teammate Willie Cauley-Stein, his height was utilized as a wide receiver. His two older brothers, Jim and Rodman, play at Boston College and N.C. State, respectively, but Noel didn’t follow in his family’s footsteps at the advice of others.
“Personally, I didn’t come to that decision,” Noel said. “My coach did at Everett High School. I still love football and still want to play, but he didn’t want to sacrifice the basketball season.”
Ironically, a year after leading Everett to an 18-5 record, Noel went down with a broken growth plate in his left leg and missed most of the basketball season anyways. He made the difficult decision after his sophomore year to transfer to the Tilton School, an hour-and-a-half drive from the familiar, urban area in Everett to a private school in the secluded town of Tilton, N.H.
There he would focus strictly on academics and basketball, away from the distractions of his hometown.
“It was a real hard decision to leave my city and not have a chance to win a state championship like I had always dreamed of growing up, but I knew it was the best decision for me in the long run,” Noel said. “I had to adjust at first, but it definitely kept you focused on basketball and studies that got you good habits coming into college.”
Even if a desire to play football still boiled in Noel’s blood, the decision to turn to basketball only turned out to be a good one. Noel blew up on the national scene that summer after coming back from the leg injury and helped his AAU team to a national championship.
By that point, most major college coaches in the country wanted his services, and his phone started to ring off the hook. Even if Noel didn’t follow his brothers’ line of work, they prepared him for life as an athletic star.
“One of the biggest things they did was they always made sure I was even-keeled and focused, never cocky or anything like that,” Noel said. “If I ever said anything over the edge, they would always (bring me back down to earth).”
The plan was always for Noel to attend Tilton for three years after the leg injury, so Noel repeated his sophomore year at Tilton.
When Noel started to dominate the basketball scene his second year at Tilton – technically his junior season – it became apparent that the extra year wasn’t needed. Noel was ready to make the jump to college and reclassified back to his original class of 2012.
Suddenly, he went from the most coveted kid for next year to the prospect everybody wanted right then and there. The recruiting frenzy reached a fever pitch.
“It got real crazy, a lot of calls,” Noel said. “A lot of schools were really starting to pick it up. A lot of schools tried to jump in.”
Noel picked UK because of John Calipari’s players-first approach.
“They take care of their players,” Noel said. “They just put them in a place to play their game, play to their strengths.”
Because of his original three-year plan at Tilton, Noel knew he would have academic work to make up for when he decided to reclassify. While his future teammates enrolled at UK this summer, Noel put aside basketball to finish his academic obligations.
Noel was frustrated knowing he was falling behind his teammates and missing an opportunity to build chemistry with them, but he accepted putting basketball second so he could return to it this fall. Missing out on full-time basketball was a big reason he didn’t play up to his standards at a recent camp, Noel said.
“Without the academics I wouldn’t be here right now,” Noel said. “That was my first priority.”
In early August, UK compliance director Sandy Bell woke Noel with a call to tell him he had officially met his academic requirements. Noel was relieved to say the least.
“Even though I know I finished the classes and I finished them strong with an A and a B, I was still nervous because you’re nervous until you get the real, official word,” Noel said. “I was just in awe.”
Noel tweeted to his fans that he was on his way to Lexington, but he didn’t actually arrive until Sunday, just a few days before classes started at UK.
Within hours of Noel’s arrival, he was seen everywhere from a grocery store to a Kentucky volleyball match. Pictures circulated the Internet of people standing next to Noel and his signature high-top fade (which once again bears the UK logo in the back), and people tweeted his whereabouts all day long.
Now that Davis and Co. have proven you can win as freshmen, some are hoping – even expecting – this stable of youth, led by Noel, will do it again. Fair or unfair, everyone’s already massive expectations have reached an unparalleled buildup.
The scary thing is it’s only August.
“I think it will hit harder once the season comes knowing how hard we’ve got to go, knowing what our expectations are and where we really want to be once March comes around,” Noel said. “I’ve had some Kentucky moments (already), but I know there is a big Kentucky moment coming. Midnight Madness is probably when it gets real.”
Noel has had little time to rest since landing in the Bluegrass. He’s been whisked around at every hour of the day to meet with coaches, academic advisers and UK officials. On top of that, he’s had classes to prepare for, a dorm room to move into and his first individual workout of the season on Wednesday.
Just grateful to be on campus, Noel is at ease with the pressure the first week in Lexington has placed on him, requirements that have been crazy even by Kentucky’s busy standards.
“I definitely want to put 100 percent into this program,” Noel said. “If I put that Kentucky jersey on, it’s on me. It’s me and my brothers on the team. If you’re not invested yourself, you’re not at the right program. If you’re at a traditional school like this, you’ve got to go all in.”
When sked to describe his strengths and weakness, Noel certainly describes a game similar to his lanky predecessor. Like Davis, he’s freakishly athletic, loves to defend the paint and can dunk the ball with ease. He admits he needs to add muscle to his 6-foot-10, 215-pound frame and develop his offensive game.
Some analysts have tabbed Noel as a better shot blocker than Davis because of his leaping ability and knack for swatting shots with both hands, one comparison Noel doesn’t mind people making. In his quest to create his own legacy, he wants to rewrite the records Davis set a season ago.
“I’m going after that shot-blocking record,” Noel said confidently. “That’s just something to motivate myself to keep playing hard on defense. You’ve always got to set a goal of what you want to accomplish, and I definitely want to go after that.”
Noel said he knew what he was getting into when he signed at the University of Kentucky. There’s the realistic chance of winning a national championship, going to the NBA and reaching his wildest dreams, but he realized early on that pressure and scrutiny came along with those possibilities.
He’s already had to face unproven media reports and questions about his eligibility, and just a few weeks ago he had to endure criticism simply because he’s not Davis. Noel, with composure unfitting of his age, has taken it all in stride.
“You can’t read everything, but whatever you do see, you’ve just got to use it as motivation, and that’s what I do,” Noel said. “I use it as my fuel to stay in the gym and keep driving myself.”
Before Noel decided to accept the comparing shadow of Davis and step into the spotlight at Kentucky, Calipari told him what he’s said to every kid he’s recruited to Lexington: Kentucky isn’t for everyone.
“It isn’t,” Noel said, pausing for a second, “but I thought it was for me. I’m ready to accept that challenge.”
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