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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Thursday / November 23.
  • Breaking Down the Bigs: Noel, Cauley-Stein & Len

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    Special to ZAGSBLOG

    NEW YORK — More than 30 NBA scouts were on hand Friday night to watch the college hoops baptism of Kentucky’s newest shot-blocking giants.

    Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein combined for 7 blocks and swung at about 20 others, but they gave up 28 offensive rebounds in the process. This night, at least as far as the scouts were concerned, belonged to Maryland’s sophomore big man, Alex Len.

    Let’s break down the three players and see what we learned:

    Alex Len 7-1, 225, Maryland:
    Alex Len, the Ukraine Train, got everybody’s attention early when he caught in the left post and put a wicked spin move on Noel to get to the rim. He looked smooth, skilled and athletic in that moment and it carried on throughout the contest. Len finished the night with 23 points and 12 rebounds on 10-18 shooting. He also had 4 blocks and played 32 minutes. Right now Alex Len has three obvious NBA skills:
    1. Great hands
    2. Good mobility/coordination (especially for a seven footer)
    3. Great form on his shot
    On four different occasions Len sealed his man in the post and snared tough entry passes thrown into tiny windows of space. Then he wasted no time elevating and dunking the basketball. He also made three catches in transition and turned them into easy dunks.

    Here is the really important thing about those transition dunks: He made them look completely ordinary. This man is over 7 feet tall, running full speed at the rim, and is able to catch, take one step and throw it down all in one fluid motion without causing anybody to think “Wow, nice job by the big man catching that pass on the run.” Which is exactly what everybody would have said if Dan Gadzuric or even Pau Gasol made the same play.

    Check out some of those seals and transition catches here: 

    I’ve already mentioned that Len can run the floor on offense but he also didn’t give up any dunks to the fleet footed Willie Cauley-Stein in transition. Getting back into the paint for a big man is about effort and discipline. You have to want to get back. Last night Alex Len was aggressive on the offensive glass (7 offensive rebounds), and he still managed to get in the paint to discourage layups and dunks by the young wildcats.

    Admittedly, Kentucky’s transition attack is in it’s infancy right now and was not very efficient. But scouts have to like Len’s willingness to hustle back on defense after challenging the offensive glass.

    At one point in the first half Len stepped out and caught a pass on the wing. His ability to drive forced Cauley-Stein to give him some space and Len looked totally comfortable knocking down the jumper with his foot on the three-point line.

    This ability completely transforms Len into a balanced inside/outside threat. He showed us three distinct post moves during the game to go along with his transition dunks, post seals, and jump shot. The first was the wicked spin he put on Noel from the left block. The next was a Brook Lopez like running right hand hook in the lane (Noel fouled him). And the third was a right shoulder spin move to a fade away jumper, which he hit over Cauley-Stein’s Go-Go-Gadget arms.

    There is a lot to like about Alex Len one game into his sophomore year. He has obviously improved very much. If he continues to play like he did last night he might be the second best big man in the draft behind Indiana’s Cody Zeller

    Willie Cauley-Stein 7-0, 244, Kentucky:

    First of all this guy needs a nickname. “Willie Caul-me-maybe” is available but that’s way too long. I’ll just be referring to him as Willie for the sake of my word count.

    Nerlens Noel has received most of the attention since the whole Kentucky recruiting class was put together last spring. But Willie looks like the more naturally gifted basketball player. He is young, and he is raw, and he will get better. But this wasn’t a horrible start.

    As Coach Cal put it, “Eight Months ago this guy was playing high school football. The last time I visited his high school he was holding a tennis racket. And tonight he goes for 8 and 6 with 4 blocks. That’s pretty good for an 18 year old.” There were two especially encouraging things about Willie’s game last night:
    1. He can run and run and run
    2. He has good vision/patience/offensive fundamentals
    The first point goes without saying. This kid is a gazelle and will be able to run the floor with any center in the NBA. The second point is more surprising. On his first post catch Willie waited for a double team that didn’t come. Then he put the ball on the floor to start his move while keeping his eyes up for cutters.

    Jarrod Polson made a nice cut down the middle of the lane and Willie found him with a perfect pass. That’s a great play for a 7’0” freshman playing in his first ever game in front of 17,000 fans (the majority of them hostile).

    Throughout the game Willie showed the patience to allow plays to develop. He didn’t cast away from deep, he didn’t panic drive with his head down. On his second post catch he shot a left handed hook (he’s already using both hands), missed it, then went and grabbed the rebound and banked it in because why wouldn’t you just go get offensive reboound and throw it in? He’s 7-feet tall, moves extraordinarily well and gets off the floor pretty quick.

    It looked like such a simple play against a Maryland front line that killed Kentucky on the glass all night. What I liked about it was that Willie showed the instinct to know where his rebound was going before it even hit the rim. After that play I thought we would see him grab 5 or 6 or 100 more offensive rebounds but he only got 2 all night.

    Maryland deserved some serious credit for this. They took serious ownership of the glass last night. But Willie probably needs to be more aggressive. He only had 2 fouls in 28 minutes last night.

    There are a couple of questions about Willie’s game that didn’t get answered in his first contest, which is fine because he is an 18 year old playing his first big time college basketball. But going forward it will be interesting to observe whether Willie has any kind of competitive mean streak in him.

    Coach Cal has mentioned Willie along with Noel as two of the hardest workers on the team, but can Willie get nasty? He had four blocks last night, and a couple of them were aggressive spikes, but this isn’t a thump-your-chest-and-scream-at-the-heavens kind of shot blocker.

    He appears to be a really calm and laid back kind of kid. Will that be a problem for him? Would Tyson Chandler be the defensive presence that he is if he weren’t a little crazy on the floor?

    At one point last night Kentucky had a couple bad defensive possessions and Julius Mays went right after Willie and grabbed him fiercely by the jersey to pull him down to share some wisdom. Does that mean that Willie is Patrick O’Bryant? No, it doesn’t. But at this point he certainly has a ways to go.

    Nerlens Noel 6-11. 216,, Kentucky

    Noel won the opening tip, ran down the floor, got post position, caught the ball, and threw in a right handed jump hook in front of 17,000 screaming fans. That’s how the career of the No.-1 ranked recruit should begin.

    Unfortunately for Noel that was probably his most impressive play of the night. Sure, he caught an alley-oop in traffic and he sent three shot attempts right back where they came from but Noel and his Fresh Prince flat top have plenty of room to improve. Here’s what I liked about him:
    • He will shoot his hook over either shoulder
    • He will block a lot of shots and alter countless others
    • He plays hard, stays active, and obviously cares very much
    Noel has been working on his offensive game and it shows. On his first jump hook he powered into the lane with a strong and athletic one dribble jump stop. He’s going to get that shot almost whenever he wants it because of his size and athletic ability and he’s going to get some of them to fall because he practices the shot so much. Here’s the problem: It looks super unnatural. Greg Oden was the same way at Ohio State.

    The release on his jump hook is jerky and he kind of short arms it. In the second half Noel showed us a nice “step-through” move after faking a jump hook but he was unable to finish the shot. he went 0-3 at the free throw line and none of them were close.

    What we learned from this game is that Noel is not a natural offensive player (the way the WIllie is natural) but that Noel will work hard enough to be effective, at least on the college level.

    On defense Noel went after way too many shots. But that’s okay because it was his first game and he will get coached up about what shots to go after in the future. He also stepped in and took a charge on a driving guard in the second half, which shows that he’s already learning.

    When the game got close towards the end Noel made some nice plays, poking the ball away from a guard at mid court and diving on a loose ball to save a possession. You have to like Noel’s motor and his obvious desire to be good.

    Over the course of this season I expect that Noel will make some immense improvements but he fell out of the top 5 picks for now and probably the top 10. That’s okay because he has officially entered Coach Calipari’s talent microwave.

    Every year coach Cal puts some talent in his program and presses “one year” and out comes an NBA draft pick. Coach Cal has his work cut out for him with this group, but he hasn’t given us any reason to believe he can’t do it again.

    Photo: Courier Journal

    Dan Kelly covers the Knicks, Nets and college basketball for He has coached select teams, high school teams and individual players on the West Coast and in South America.

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.