Fantasy hoops: Will Nerlens Noel ever break out?

Will Nerlens Noel ever truly break out and be the fantasy star he once promised to be? John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we pose a question to a panel of ESPN fantasy basketball experts to gauge their thoughts on a hot topic.

Today's contributors are ESPN Fantasy's André Snellings, Jim McCormick, Joe Kaiser and Kyle Soppe.


At times during his four NBA seasons, Nerlens Noel has looked like he was going to be a fantasy favorite, capable of racking up boatloads of steals, blocks and double-doubles, but he has been a bust the past couple of seasons. He is only 23 and set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Do you think he'll ever truly break out?

André Snellings: Noel is at a bit of a career crossroads, with three main pathways he could take. He could go the way of Tyrus Thomas and never really see another NBA court in an impactful way. He could go the way of Gerald Green or Michael Beasley, establishing himself as a journeyman with a useful skill set and finding spots where he can thrive. Or he could go the way of Hassan Whiteside: Hit rock bottom, then re-find himself in a new location and finally live up to the awesome potential.

Of the three, I think the second option is the most likely. Noel is taller and more talented than Thomas was, and he has a defensive skill set that is always of use in a long, hyper-athletic big man, even in today's NBA. However, he's had enough false starts that it's hard to bet on everything coming together and him developing into a franchise player. Thus, I see his most likely upside as a journeyman -- a poor man's Tyson Chandler type with the potential upside of averaging around a low double-double. And, of course, that depends entirely on his health.

Jim McCormick: Dating back to 1979, just seven players have sustained a steal percentage (estimate of the percentage of offensive possessions that end with a steal by a defensive player) of 2.8 percent combined with a block percentage of 4.0 percent (minimum 15 MPG) during the regular season. These seven players -- including the likes of David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Andrei Kirilenko -- have produced 12 such seasons. Noel is responsible for two of these unique seasons, including his career-best campaign as a rookie and last season's blend between the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks.

It's easy to forget that Noel was 11th in the NBA in defensive win shares as a 20-year-old rookie despite being on a team explicitly tanking. It's disconcerting that he can't get on the floor for Dallas, but I'll continue to trust that a young player with historic defensive rates will eventually unfurl a special statistical season. With the league learning to appreciate the value of dynamic rim-to-rim centers like Clint Capela, trusting the process with Noel will eventually pay off.

Joe Kaiser: At this point, Noel needs to dig deep to resurrect his NBA career. His trade to the Mavs was supposed to be a second chance for him to bust out and solidify himself as a starter in this league. Instead, he became out of shape and lost the athleticism that made him appealing as an NBA player and fantasy asset.

He's still young enough to turn things around, but he needs things to click quickly and to settle into the right situation with a coach he likes to play for. Otherwise, his best fantasy production may already be in the rear-view mirror.

Kyle Soppe: I do think it depends a bit on where he lands, but I have a hard time seeing him ever living up to the level of production that we expected when he was the sixth player off the board in the 2013 draft.

That said, the defensive numbers are capable of making Noel a roster-worthy option (for his career, he is averaging 3.0 steals-plus-blocks in just 26.1 minutes of action). I'm just not sure we've seen enough at the professional level to believe he has an offensive break out in him. He's yet to develop any sort of consistent jump shot (he's shooting under 30 percent from outside of eight feet for his career), and while he is a fine per-minute rebounder, I'm not sure his rebounding and defensive upside is enough to ever make him a fantasy star.

Remember early career Serge Ibaka? The guy that would score 10 points a night, give you in the neighborhood of 3.0 blocks-plus-steals and rebound at a good rate? I think that's the ceiling for Noel, and that is very useful in points-based leagues, but not at the star level. As long as you manage expectations, I have no problem in rostering Noel in 2019.