ATLANTA — For 20 minutes, the learning curve seemed too steep for Nerlens Noel Tuesday night. He hunted a blocked shot, but surrendered a layup. He got moved off the block with a mild forearm by Duke’s Miles Plumlee and gave up another 2 points. Several possessions later, his man sprinted ahead and scored in transition.
Two games into his college career, the 18-year-old from Everett, Mass., looked as if he was in that freshman fog. He is Kentucky’s 6-foot-10-inch center and the expectations for 20 minutes looked out of reach.
When will that fog lift? Maybe sooner than you think. Maybe as quick as one half to the next.
The same player that left his feet too easily to block shots in the first half against Duke, or got beat to the other end of the floor for a transition basket, was not so easily taken advantage of in the second half by the Blue Devils. He forced the 6-10 Plumlee, a seasoned senior, to pass out of the post one possession after another, refusing to bite on ball fakes. Noel held his ground when Plumlee tried to pressure him and the Duke center ended up with his fourth foul early in the second half and took a seat on the bench.
It will probably be like this the first month of the season for Noel, a high school All-American. He will play in fits and spurts, but there seemed to be a significant leap from his first game at Maryland last Friday, when he scored 4 points, and against Duke, when he scored 16.
“Against a team like Duke you have to bring it every possession,” Noel said. “Tonight was part of the process. I think we learned a lot.”
Noel had eight rebounds to go with 5-of-11 shooting in No. 3 Kentucky’s 75-68 loss to No. 8 Duke.
The freshman surprised the Blue Devils with his willingness to jump into the passing lane and try to make deflections. Noel finished with four steals.
“I was successful with it and, at times, I wasn’t,” Noel said. “I tried to limit that in the second half. I was just trying to get steals and get the fast break going.”
Noel was much more aggressive with the basketball against Duke than Maryland, and it got him to the foul line. He made 6 of 8 free throws. and filled up the stat nicely in just his second college game. Noel played 38 minutes and had just one turnover, even with Duke’s game plan to pressure Kentucky’s big men.
“Nerlens played way more aggressive than he did against Maryland, on the offensive end and defensive end,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
It took almost nine minutes to get a glimpse of Noel’s explosiveness around the basket. He took a bullet pass into the numbers coming out from under the basket, planted a foot, and buried a two-hand dunk in front of two Duke defenders.
Later, Noel caught a pass on the left side and took one long, quick step and was on the other side of the lane trying to flip an underhand shot into the basket. He was fouled and made a free throw, but on another possession he airballed a hook shot.
One thing Kentucky accomplished with Noel’s help was taking better care of business under the boards. The Wildcats were outrebounded by Maryland, 54-38, in their season opener. Duke outrebounded Kentucky by just 31-30.