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Basketball philosophy

Nerlens Noel, Cody Zeller and the “adjustment” theory in the NBA Draft

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Nerlens Noel

Nerlens Noel (Photo credit: SportsAngle.com)

Nerlens Noel is currently ranked as the #1 overall pick on ESPN.com. Cody Zeller is ranked 10th and his buzz appears to be fading fast.

Noel’s higher ranking has little to do with production. Cody was more productive as a freshman than Noel this year, then slightly improved his production as a sophomore.

Why Noel is ranked ahead is what I’ll call the “adjustment theory”. The criticism is Zeller won’t be able to get his game off in the NBA, because of middling athleticism and moreso, because he is a skinny big with a poor wingspan. Because his game lives in the post in college, Zeller’s critics argue he won’t get his game off against defenders bigger, longer and more athletic than him.

Noel in contrast, is an athletic freak with elite length, the full physical package resembling Kevin Garnett’s. As a result there is less concern over his game translating to the NBA, because he will be more athletic and longer than his peers instead of the opposite. His game is made to translate physically to an NBA level.

Is this adjustment theory reliable? I’d argue it’s not.

The first flaw of this argument, is that the move from NCAA to NBA physically, does not necessarily affect elite physical talents less than middling ones despite what initial instincts may suggest. Noel’s athleticism and length is miles and miles above his peers at the NCAA level, but at the more physically gifted NBA that advantage will shrink. Thus Noel is still facing a plausibly significant fall physically going from NCAA to NBA, it’d just be from transcendent in the NCAA to a lesser elite in the NBA, perhaps as big a difference in value as the transition Cody will face.

Furthermore, the jump from the NCAA to NBA is just as massive in skill and intelligence as it is physically. Which means the skill and instincts in college Noel showed this year in college, if compared to the superior NBA peers would have looked levels worse. Noel’s skill game may not “get off” in the NBA like it did in college, just as Cody’s may not. Like comparing their physical drop-offs, it comes down to judging where they start and where they fall to. Cody’s skill and IQ may fall from elite for his position in the NCAA to merely decent against NBA bigs. But Noel’s could fall just as far if from average for bigs in the NCAA, to poor in the NBA.

Compare this to Thomas Robinson last year. Robinson passes the adjustment theory with flying colors, as an elite athlete with great strength for a PF. Thus according to conventional wisdom getting his game off against opponents in the NBA should not have been as big a struggle as for say, Jared Sullinger – a post player who was expected to struggle getting his game off against the bigger, longer and more athletic opponents in the NBA. But in reality, Robinson took as big a hit from the physical upgrade from the NCAA to NBA as anyone. It’s just he went from dominant physically in the NCAA, to an elite athlete but not separating himself as much in the NBA – a significant fall-off. In addition to this his skill and IQ, enough to get by in college, now look like a weaknesses killing his productivity and making it hard to play him.

Every player is going to by definition, fall-off in physical talents, skill and intelligence compared to peers, when moving from the NCAA to NBA. The NBA’s improvements in those areas guarantees it. The question is which players take the biggest hits in those areas. I believe if one looks at it rationally, there isn’t a reason to believe Noel’s status as a physical tools-first prospect, makes him less likely to get gunned down by the NCAA to NBA transition than a player like Cody Zeller.

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Written by jr.

April 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm

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