With Mitchell Robinson sidelined with a fractured hand, Nerlens Noel has stepped up as a defensive stalwart in the paint for the Knicks.

The New York Knicks will sorely miss Mitchell Robinson’s presence. His impact on both ends, especially on the defensive side, is indisputable.

This devastating blow becomes more painful when considering Robinson was amid a career-best performance when he fractured his wrist. Robinson compiled a double-double of 10 points and 14 rebounds in the first half of a February 12th showdown with the Washington Wizards. On the bright side, Robinson recently underwent successful surgery to repair his wrist, although the expectation is he will remain on the sidelines for four to six weeks.  

The third-year big became a fixture in head coach Tom Thibodeau’s starting unit after primarily coming off the bench as a rookie and sophomore. Robinson was the linchpin of a New York defense ranking among the top of the league in both points allowed and opponent field goal percentage. While foul trouble plagued Robinson during his first two seasons in the league, he had seemingly curtailed this hurtful penchant before his injury (53rd percentile in foul percentage this season, per Cleaning the Glass). Despite no longer block-hunting, Robinson remained an elite rim protector for New York, as opponents shot just 62% at the rim this season with Robinson on the floor, which ranked in the 64th percentile among bigs, according to Cleaning the Glass. 

Robinson’s injury raises a crucially important question for a Knicks team aspiring to remain afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff picture: who will be the short-term man in the middle for the Knicks? New York faithful now has their answer.

Nerlens Noel, the seven-year journeyman, is stylistically an old-school big man akin to Robinson. Noel’s eerily similar playstyle has allowed him to slide into the starting unit seamlessly and impact winning as New York’s impermanent defensive anchor and primary lob threat.

Defensive disruptor in more ways than one

Shot blocking is an art few frontcourt players have in their stockpile nowadays. It’s often neglected as an unimportant, archaic skill considering the three-point craze swept across the NBA in recent years. But while swatting away opponents is no longer in style, it is no less useful. Just look at the case of Noel, who remained a pillar in the rotation with a healthy Robinson primarily because of his unique ability to impede foes at the rim. 

Noel is a top-five rim protector in the NBA right now. No, this is not hyperbole. Noel averages a stout 1.9 rejections per contest at this juncture, which is the fifth-highest of any player in the association. What makes this figure even more impressive is he plays by far the fewest minutes of any of the best 10 swatters, at just 19.4. For reference, Jakob Poeltl sees the second-least minutes of the bunch at 22.2. 

The advanced metrics further accentuate Noel’s case as a top-flight intimidator. Noel’s block percentage is a career-best 5.2%, which places him in the 98th percentile this season, per Cleaning the Glass. Among bigs who have played over 105 minutes this season, only Myles Turner—far-and-away the league leader in blocks with 3.5 per game—boasts a superior block percentage.

Noel’s impeccable timing is what separates him from the overwhelming majority. Couple that with an eye-opening vertical leap for a near seven-footer, and Noel possesses the two most crucial characteristics of a top-flight rim protector. Blocking shots is Noel’s defining attribute, and for a good reason. He’s one of the world’s best. Plain and simple.

While stymieing the opposition at the rim is the meat and potatoes of what Noel contributes as a defender, it far from encapsulates the full extent of his impression on that end. Believe it or not, ever since he stepped foot in the league, Noel’s had a knack for forcing steals. The Massachusetts native has landed within the top 10 percentile in steal percentage every year in the pros, including the 94th percentile in 2020–21. 

Notwithstanding acquiring a reputation in New York as someone without great hands, Noel’s hand-eye coordination is well above-average, even by NBA standards. His adeptness in poking the rock loose from players in the post is virtually unmatched. Not to mention, Noel regularly causes deflections and mucks up pick-and-roll actions with his bird-like 7’4″ wingspan. 

Noel is no perfect defender. He fouls all too much (24th percentile in foul percentage). It is somewhat common for the Knicks to yank Noel out of the game early due to foul trouble. But the undeniable positives far outweigh this one negative. Noel is a net-positive defender, and his lethal combination of expertise in the blocks and steals departments is just what the doctor ordered with Robinson down for the count as of now. 

Rim runner and lob threat

Averaging just 4.0 points per game this season, Noel isn’t quite the game-changer on offense that he is on the other end. He lacks any semblance of a reliable post-up game, and while comfortable firing from the mid-range area, he’s fared egregiously from therein. Only 29% of his attempts from this proximity have found the net, which is in the 13th percentile for his position. But with an All-Star caliber talent and dynamic scorer in Julius Randle as his running mate, there is little to no pressure on Noel to put up points. Essentially, whatever production he adds in the scoring column is considered a bonus. 

However, there is one area where Noel is an ongoing threat to score: the paint. His shot chart highlights his drastic difference in comfort level scoring inside compared to the perimeter—71% of all of his field-goal attempts this season have come from point-blank range. Noel’s springiness in blocking shots aids him as an above-the-rim finisher as well. Shooting 70% on bunnies, Noel finishes above the rim and through contact with regularity. 

Noel can often speed by his coverage in open court situations with a smooth gait compared to his positional counterparts. Per Cleaning the Glass, his aptitude in rim-running for easy points inspires his teammates to race with him—the Knicks are out and running on 1.4% more of their possessions with Noel on the floor. 

Another way Noel devastates teams at the rim is as a lob threat. Noel has already accumulated several poster dunks under his belt in 2020–21, with most of them stemming from alley-oop slams. Noel is a handful to contain with a full head of steam and the rim in his sights. Throw it to him high enough where only he can grab it, and it’s almost a guaranteed recipe for two points.

Noel doesn’t have many plays called for him. He plays within the offense’s flow and capitalizes on the attention that the stars, Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett, draw from the defense.

Noel is the ideal opportunistic scorer and interior anchor for this Knicks group. He is competing in a winning fashion and leading by example, while not hindering the young stars’ growth by demanding touches. If Noel can continue his stellar play once he returns to the bench, he could very well play himself into another contract with the Knicks this summer.


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