Alex Len or Nerlens Noel?

Image Copyright: ESPN

Image Copyright: ESPN

The 2013 NBA Draft is tonight and all eyes are on the Cleveland Cavaliers and who they decide they are going to take with the number one pick in a notably weaker draft than ones in years past. Yet, while the draft is weak, there are still a few standout players that could possibly be taken with that number one pick.

Two of those players are big men Nerlens Noel out of Kentucky and Alex Len out of Maryland. With the need for a skilled big man being prevalent for many NBA teams, both of these players are being strongly considered for top five picks. Noel has been the favorite to be the number one overall pick for quite some time, but Len is making a late serge up the big board.

So who is the more reliable big man to take in this draft? We look to good ol’ reliable statistics for the answer:

When taking an analytical look at centers in basketball, there are certain stats that one should focus on, and certain ones that should have less value. For example, some less valuable statistics for a big man are three-point percentage and assists. While these could be important statistics to look at for a big man if they are high, they shouldn’t be held against the player if they are low. This holds especially true for Noel and Len, as both players find themselves in the paint for most of the game and are not seen as playmakers. With that said, for these two players we will be looking at four key, relevant statistics: field goal shooting, free throw shooting, rebounding, and shot blocking.


The goal of basketball is to score. How do you score? You shoot. Having a big man down low that can score can prove to be so valuable to any team as it gives them a more balanced offense.

The best way to look at how good of a shooter a player is to look at their Field Goal Percentage (FG%), more specifically their Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%). Effective Field Goal percentage takes into account that a three-point shot is worth more than a two-point shot and adjusts the percentage accordingly, but since neither Nerlens Noel nor Alex Len are three-point shooters (Noel attempted zero in college, Len attempted nine in two seasons), we won’t need to use eFG%.

Here is how the two compare:

Player FGM FGA FG%
Nerlens Noel 98 166 59%
Alex Len 225 418 53.80%

Not much explaining needed here, as the numbers pretty much tell the story. Noel was more accurate from the field in his freshman season at Kentucky, which was cut short because of an ACL injury, than Len was in his two years at Maryland.



Having a big man down low that is a good free throw shooter can be huge for a team, as the majority of contact happens close to the basket and centers and forwards find themselves at the line more than perimeter players. Having poor free throw shooting big men has proved fatal for some teams in the fourth quarter, like the Lakers with Dwight Howard and Clippers with DeAndre Jordan.

It’s one thing to be accurate from the free throw line, but what good is a player’s accuracy if they don’t get to the line? By dividing a player’s Free Throw Attempts (FTA) by their Field Goal Attempts (FGA), we can get an idea of how often a player gets to the free throw line when shooting.

Both free throw accuracy and frequency are displayed below in the table comparing Noel and Len:

Nerlens Noel 55 104 52.9% 62.7%
Alex Len 225 418 66.3% 47.6%

According to the statistics, neither player is a very good free throw shooter, but Alex Len is far more accurate than Nerlens Noel. Yet, Noel finds himself going to the free throw line way more often than Len does. This can be both a blessing and a curse for Noel. It’s a blessing because it means he is aggressive at the basket and can commonly draw fouls. On the other hand, it’s a curse because he shoots so inaccurately from the charity stripe that he and his team will miss out on a lot of free points.

Overall, in regards to free throws, I will take quality over quantity. So, while Noel will find himself at the line more often, he’s not going to be able to knock the free throws as accurately as Len, and a team needs to get points whenever they are available.


Now that we have analyzed both field goal and free throw shooting, we can see what each player’s total shooting percentage (TS%) is. TS% is a measure of shooting percentage that takes into account both field goals and free throws.

Here is how the two players compare in regards to TS%, as well as points per game (PPG):

Player TS% PPG
Nerlens Noel 58.3% 10.5
Alex Len 56.9% 9.7

So, while Noel was more accurate from the field and Len was far more accurate from the free throw line, Noel comes out on top with a higher TS% and averages .8 more points per game.

Now to get to the non-scoring statistics…


Having a center that can’t rebound is like having a dog that can’t bark. If a team’s tallest player on the court can’t rebound then he has no business being on the court.

Here are Noel and Len’s offensive, defensive, and total rebounds per game averages:

Nerlens Noel 2.7 6.75 9.5
Alex Len 2.4 4.53 7

The numbers clearly say that Noel is a better rebounder on both sides of the ball, but these numbers alone cannot tell us who is a better rebounder, as there are many factors that go into rebounding. For example, Noel may just average more rebounds solely because he has more chances at rebounds as the other team misses more shots.

Luckily, there is a way to tell who gets more rebounds out of the rebounds that are available to them. Using offensive and defensive rebound percentages (ORB% and DRB%), we can see the percentage of available rebounds Noel and Len grabbed while they were on the floor.

Here is how the two players compare:

Player ORB% DRB% TRB%
Nerlens Noel 10.40% 22.30% 16.80%
Alex Len 11.80% 19.50% 15.90%

Now we can see that Alex Len grabs a higher percentage of offensive rebounds available to him, while Nerlens Noel grabs a higher percentage of defensive rebounds and total rebounds.

So, while offensive rebounds are important because they give a team another possession, they are not as important as defensive rebounds because a defensive rebound ends a successful defensive possession. With that said, I give the edge to Nerlens Noel in the rebounding category as he grabs not only more rebounds, but a higher percentage of rebounds.



The best way for a big man to make up for any offensive deficiencies he may possess is to step up on the defensive end. Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, and Larry Sanders all do it and are finding NBA success because of it.

An elite shot blocker is such a key aspect of any team as every other player knows they have some insurance sitting in the lane if their man drives by them. Just like rebounding, we can look at not only how many blocks each player averaged, but also what percentage of two-point attempts each player blocked while on the floor. Here are the numbers:

Nerlens Noel 4.4 13.20%
Alex Len 2.10% 8.60%

There is no real competition here. Noel was the most prolific shot blocker by far in all of college basketball last year, and had he stayed a couple more years he could have been known as the greatest shot blocker in college basketball history.

No further questions.


After analyzing how the “two biggest big men” of the 2013 NBA Draft match up in four major statistical categories, it is clear that according to the numbers, Nerlens Noel is the better player and worthy of being that number one overall pick.

Now, one might say that numbers simply don’t tell the whole story, that just because one scores more points doesn’t mean they are more efficient or help the team more on offense, or that just because a player is better shot blocker doesn’t’ mean they are a better defender. If you feel this way, I have one more set of numbers for you.

Offensive and Defensive Rating give an estimate amount of points produced by a player per 100 possessions and an estimate amount of points given up by an individual player per 100 possessions. Author and statistician Dean Oliver came up with both ratings.

Here is how Noel and Len compare:

Player Off Rat Def Rat
Nerlens Noel 112.9 81.9
Alex Len 112.4 95

Noel, as one could have guessed, is better in both categories, producing more points per 100 possessions, although by very little, and giving up far less points to the opposition per 100 possessions.

Now I don’t see how there is any argument when looking at the numbers. If any team is in need of a big man when picking in this draft, they should without a doubt look to Nerlens Noel first.

The only other remaining question is whether or not Noel will be an effective NBA player in the end, and I don’t see how he won’t be. He has a very similar playing style to that of Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan, and both are finding a way to be successful in the association, especially on the highlight reel.

I fully expect to see Nerlens Noel be on a few highlight reels of his own, but only time will tell.


Nick Brazzoni is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he is majoring in Journalism. Additionally, he is a member of the Sports Business Club at the University. See more of Nick’s writings on his personal blog,, and follow him on twitter (@NickBrazzoni).


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One thought on “Alex Len or Nerlens Noel?

  1. Pingback: NBA Draft Preview: Why Alex Len is the Right Pick for the Cavaliers…Probably | Cleveland the GOAT

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