Rook Looks Vol. II: Payton & Noel

By Chris Horton @HortonBBallSite

The second installment of Rook Looks breakdowns the play of Elfrid Payton and Nerlens Noel in the month of December.

Elfrid Payton, PG Orlando Magic

Elfrid Payton is two completely different players. On the defensive end of the floor he is Payton, with all of the ability to be a lockdown defender at the point guard spot, ala Gary Payton. Offensively, Elfrid is more like Alfred. By that I mean he plays a supporting role, catches your eye in a few scenes, but still doesn’t even play Batman’s primary sidekick.

Defensively, Payton is already special. As soon as Payton steps on the court, the Magic are a completely different team. With a ridiculous blend of size, quickness, intelligence, and hands, Payton is a terror. What I appreciate most about Payton is that he is defensive-minded, which is uncommon for players his age. It is one thing to have the tools but mindset is always key, and Payton has the right one. He has strong, quick hands that are always active, both as an individual and team defender. Payton makes a habit of getting in passing lanes and hunting for weak side steals when he isn’t harassing his individual matchup. Here is a clip from Summer League to give you a glimpse of what I mean.

If you still don’t believe in the power of Payton’s defensive prowess, consider this, Payton ranks second in steals per game (1.5) among rookies and third among all point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM). DRPM is the most advanced statistic for measuring individual defensive performances. In simplest terms, DRPM measures the positive (or negative) point impact each player causes because of their defense (or lack thereof). You don’t have to be a nerd to realize Payton’s defensive impact; it is undeniable and readily apparent.

Now, Elfrid. Most similarly, Elfrid’s offensive game resembles early Rajon Rondo. A natural passer with exceptional court vision and anticipation, Elfrid threatens the defense as a creator. But to continue with the young Rondo parallel, Elfrid cannot and does not shoot with any type of consistency. In fact, Elfrid is such a non-threat to shoot outside of 12 feet that teams sag off him and don’t close out on his perimeter catches, the same way teams used to guard Rondo.

Over time, Rondo was able to change the way teams defended him. First, teams came to guard Rondo closer because he was such an excellent passer that teams wanted to limit his space in an attempt to curtail his vision and the ease of which he was able to make pinpoint passes. Then, as Rondo progressed as a shooter (especially in the midrange), teams needed to apply pressure to prevent easy midrange looks.

Elfrid and the Magic need to hope for a similar, Rondo-like progression. As it currently stands, Elfrid limits the spacing of the Magic offense, which is costing him minutes in this era of space driven basketball. Unfortunately, I don’t know how long it will take Elfrid to come around as a viable shooter. Sometimes guards who struggle to shoot from the field have an easier time finding their touch at the free throw line, but Elfrid even struggles mightily at the stripe. In a game that included DeAndre Jordan, Elfrid was by far the worst free throw shooter on the court. By far…No matter how much he rubbed his hands.

Despite lacking an essential offensive skill, Elfrid still finds ways to be effective. As I touched on earlier, Elfrid is an extremely gifted passer and definitely the best passer of this rookie class. Even his teammates are surprised by some of the passes that wind up in their laps. Elfrid’s passing ability is a testament to his basketball IQ. He sees plays happen before they develop, always knowing when and where to put the ball on his teammates. Solely as a passer, Elfrid’s potential is incredible. But as a complete offensive player, Elfrid needs to grow immensely before he can even be considered as a steady offensive option.

If Elfrid Payton gets his Elfrid (offense) to catch up with his Payton (defense), he can be a sensational player for a long time. The jump shot is the key to unlock Elfrid Payton’s game and I hope Elfrid can find it.

Here is how my post-draft KPI ratings have changed after watching Elfrid Payton in the month of December:

Nerlens Noel, C Philadelphia 76ers

If Nerlens Noel was a product in a retail store he would be sold in the “As Seen On TV” section. With an infomercial product, you’re excited when you first receive it because you now get to do everything you’ve seen the crazy loud guy do on TV. As a few days pass, you find a couple more things that you like, but mostly you discover limitations. My back gets cold when I lay with my Snuggie, my George Foreman Grill only allows me to cook one steak at a time, and my Clapper leaves me in the dark every time I cheer for the Sixers. That’s Nerlens Noel right now.

If you watched Noel play at the University of Kentucky you knew he was a springy big man with a slight build that could run the floor and block shots. What you’ve learned as a Sixers fan (because no casual NBA fans are watching this team on a nightly basis) is that Noel is all of these things and little else. But I did say infomercial products do often have a few unexpected positive surprises. I was pleasantly surprised by how good Noel’s hands were when defending and when catching in traffic. He is extremely disruptive and purposeful with his hands. Most notable, however, was Noel’s ability and willingness to use both hands around the basket. Particularly, Noel loves to use the lefty floater, which shocked me nearly to death when I first saw it.

When I finally overcame my shock I was excited to look for other aspects of Noel’s game that have gone under the radar. However, in my search for positivity I found flaws in Noel’s infomercial game. When I watched Noel match up with Marc Gasol I felt the same way I did when I opened my Magic Bullet—“I thought it was bigger than that!” Noel is listed at 228 lbs, of which at least seven can be found here (or should I say, hair), making him the lightest center in the league. The nightly weight disparity is evident when Noel goes head-to-head with the league’s bruising, attacking centers, like the aforementioned Gasol who bullied Noel throughout their game. Noel’s (lack of) weight might also be holding him back as a screener as well. Noel is a horrific screener. He rarely makes contact with the opposing player, and it’s not like he is a wide body to run around in the first place. Nearly every pick and roll with Noel is futile. I’m shocked that this hasn’t been corrected yet. It’s atrocious.

Another unpleasant surprise from Noel was his seemingly minimal awareness. Noel doesn’t always guard smart and even looks completely confused at times. For the most part he is still effective, so more power to him, but I liken the Noel defensive experience to that of a P90X workout. After you complete your first P90X workout you look at the clock and realize it took you 80 minutes. You had a good workout but somewhere in the process you were so much more thirsty and out of shape than everyone in the video that the workout took 20 minutes longer than it should have. Effective, but not in the exact way it was intended.

After watching Noel for a month, my biggest concern is how he responds to PACE plays. Super Bowl Champion Trent Dilfer sometimes uses his ESPN platform to talk about PACE plays, or Plays After Critical Errors. Basically, Dilfer is looking for how players bounce back after something goes wrong, whether it’s a turnover, missed assignment, loss, etc. Everyone is going to make mistakes over the course of a game, but you never want to see players compound those mistakes with more mistakes. Take the player who misses the layup then immediately fouls the opposing player who rebounded their miss. You don’t want a bad play to turn into bad quarter or a bad game into a bad week. We know Noel has the mental fortitude to overcome significant injury, but this month I have seen his emotions ebb and flow as games do. I have seen a 3 for 7 shooting performance one night turn into a 7 for 26 performance over a four game span. Maybe this is just the trappings of a young player on a bad team, or maybe it’s something bigger, but it is definitely something I will keep an eye on going forward, especially as losses build and speculation flies regarding Noel’s future in Philadelphia.

While the Sixers may be slightly disappointed with some of Noel’s offensive struggles, they still have to be relatively happy. After all, you buy Miracle Blades so you can slice through shoes, cinder blocks, and tomatoes, not because you actually expect them to produce a concrete shoelace pasta in a tomato cream sauce. The Sixers got Noel because of his athletic ability and defensive prowess. In those areas Noel is delivering. With his length, energy, and athleticism Noel is able to leave his imprint all over the game for certain stretches. Many expected this impact to come from shot blocking, but Noel is also making steals a habit. Noel routinely gets deflections and takes away easy passes that guards have grown to take for granted. So many times I have seen guards lazily pass to their big man as they are trudging toward the top of the key. Noel is always there to steal or, at the very least, challenge these passes. He also is able to surprise offensive players by poking the ball out of their hands when they are anticipating a shot block attempt. In fact, Noel has been able to surprise his way to the very top of the rookie steals list at 1.7 steals per game while also averaging the most blocks of any rookie at 1.4 per game.

Overall, the Sixers got what was advertised. A bouncy center that can wreak havoc on the defensive end and change the game with his energy and athleticism. All the other things are just part of the package.

Here is how my KPI evaluation of Nerlens Noel has changed after watching his December games:

Stay tuned for Rook Looks Vol. III featuring T'Wolves Rooks Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine (to replace Jabari Parker)...

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