When Mitchell Robinson went down with a fractured right hand an added responsibility was handed to Nerlens Noel, shifted into the starting lineup. And when Taj Gibson suffered a sprained left ankle Saturday, Noel was handed an additional burden — playing the sort of minutes usually reserved for superstars.
But in back-to-back wins this weekend, Noel, who has long searched for an opportunity, found himself playing 41 minutes Saturday and 40 Sunday, making huge contributions against the Pacers and Pistons. This, from a former lottery pick, who previously had played 30 minutes in a game just once in the last four seasons.
Aside from exhaustion, Noel has made it possible for the Knicks to survive and even thrive since Robinson's injury against Washington on February 12. Since then the Knicks have won six of eight games entering Tuesday night’s game at San Antonio.
"I definitely don’t want anybody to be hurt on this team and I’m wishing Mitchell a speedy recovery," Noel said. "That’s my brother. But taking that spot I’ve tried to really make a focal point to try to man this team, be the anchor on the defensive end and do all the small little things that will help us win the game. I think I’ve tried to do that at a high level and play the right way."
"I’m proud of Nerlens for being ready, which we knew he would be," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "And then we have a lot of other guys stepping up. I don’t think you replace a guy like Mitchell individually. We have to do it collectively. If we play hard, we play smart, we play together, we can find a way to win. That’s what I want us to do. And whenever someone else is called upon, someone goes into the rotation, just be ready, get in there and get the job done. That’s what being a team is all about."
Noel hasn’t just held down the fort though. On the season he has averaged 2.0 blocks per game, good enough for fourth in the NBA and better than the 1.5 per game that Robinson was averaging. He may not be the intimidating presence that Robinson is, giving up three inches to Robinson, but he might change that intimidation factor if someone reads his answer to his philosophy defending the rim.
"My philosophy? If you don’t know you’re going to find out," Noel said. "That’s my philosophy. Just protecting the rim by any means. I think it’s a great aspect of my game that I try to play at a high level. It opens up various things when they stop coming, not with the same emphasis, done enough to change the game. Just come at me and you’ll find out."
Noel once carried higher expectations than Robinson. He was the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft while Robinson was a second-round choice by the Knicks after not playing college ball. Robinson sat out a year to prepare for the draft. Noel was a star at Kentucky, which may have more than a little to his signing with the Knicks this season with the Kentucky connections among team president Leon Rose, his right-hand man William Wesley and assistant coach Kenny Payne. On the court it matters, too, with the team’s All-Star Julius Randle coming from the same program.
"Obviously this is my first time being on the same team with him," Noel said. "At Kentucky, he was like a year after me, but just seeing his evolution, I remember playing against him last year, years before, but now it’s just different confidence — All-Star, simply good. He shoots the ball with ultra-confidence . . . I think that’s really taking a real step forward with him to be a leader of this team, lead by example. Julius is just a fantastic person, fantastic player, I really enjoy playing with him."
Noel is not an All-Star and he isn’t the leader of the team. But after an itinerant career, the Knicks being his fourth team in seven seasons, he may have found a home.