We shouldn't compare Nerlens Noel to Anthony Davis. But we can't help ourselves.
"It is unfair to compare them," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Wednesday. "But they're wearing the same (Kentucky) uniform. It's a natural comparison."
Through 16 games of a freshman season, Noel holds his own in a comparison with Davis, who led UK to the 2012 national championship. He scores, shoots, rebounds and blocks nearly as much. He averages twice as many steals (see chart).
Maybe most importantly, Noel contributes in a similarly multi-faceted way which inspires teammates. As Bilas has noted on the ESPN website, Noel is the only player in the country who ranks in the top 30 in both blocks (No. 4) and steals (No. 12).
"It just means he's incredibly active and impacts the game in a lot of different ways," Bilas said. "Maybe a little differently than Davis did last year, but it's impactful."
Clark Kellogg, an analyst for CBS, echoed the sentiment.
"Very rare," he said of the blocks-and-steals combination. "And I think it most speaks to his athleticism, anticipation and energy. Blocking and changing shots in the paint probably has more of a direct impact on winning than steals. But excelling in both is unique."
After the 75-65 victory over Tennessee on Tuesday, UK duly noted Noel's ability to inspire. He again stuffed his statistical line (12 points, nine rebounds, two assists, six blocks and four steals) and loomed large, in a figurative as well as literal sense, down the stretch of a close game.
"His intensity has been great," teammate Kyle Wiltjer said. "Both sides of the ball. He's been active. We're at our best when he's playing well."
UK Coach John Calipari noted the benefits of the so-called Camp Cal extra workouts during the semester break.
"The workouts for Nerlens helped him more than anybody else," Calipari said after Kentucky beat Tennessee.
Last weekend against Texas A&M, Noel flirted with a quadruple-double, finishing with 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and seven blocks.
"You saw the progress," Calipari said of Noel. "Some other guys, in a month, their exertion level (as measured by) heart rates never really moved, which tells you as soon as they hit that wall, they kept stopping — for a month."
Noel credited assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Orlando Antigua for helping him benefit from the extra workouts.
"(Payne and Antigua) have just been really pushing me," he said. "Conditioning, skill working, getting my mind right. Like Coach Cal always says, 'You have to always have a good mind-set.' A lot of it's mental. That's what Coach Cal's been getting on us about. And it's played a big role in how I've been playing — always being mentally prepared."
Noel said that he noticed teammates like Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Julius Mays feeding off his energy and production.
"It gives me more energy," he said. "It's a great thing to see them out there with that energy."
With 44 steals in 16 games (2.8 per game), Noel is on pace to break Rajon Rondo's UK record for steals (2.559 per game in 2004-05).
As Bilas has noted, the 6-foot-10 Noel is the only player taller than 6-5 who ranks in the top 30 nationally in steals.
To explain Noel's knack for making steals, Calipari said, "He's got a quick twitch. I will tell you that. And he's long."
Noel can make the simple entry pass into the low post an adventure for opponents. Many of his steals come on that pass. Bilas cited anticipation, positioning and ending contact with the offensive player as factors on those steals.
"If there's contact, the offensive player has the advantage," Bilas said. "In order to knock the ball away, you have to break that contact."
As for the comparisons to Davis, Kellogg and Bilas saw Noel as a similarly impactful defender and a not as polished offensive player at this early stage of development.
"But that will get better with repetition, added strength, and slowing down just a bit," Kellogg said of Noel's offensive game.
Bilas noted how Noel's numbers compare favorably to Patrick Ewing's as a freshman (12.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.2 blocks). But Noel is a different type of player, though, with Ewing more imposing physically.
Bilas likened Noel to another former Calipari player: Marcus Camby.