Thursday, January 17, 2008

What I like about Al Nolen

People who know me are pretty sure I'm not high on Gopher freshman point guard Al Nolen, but the opposite is actually true...I just don't think he's a star player, and as a fan I want the Gophers to have all star players in their starting lineup like most big-time programs do. It's a case of setting my expectations high. I want a team that is obviously the best team in the Big 10 prior to the season because we've recruited so well. Great, good, average or bad I'll cheer like hell for (and criticize) them once the season starts. And then the most important thing, infinitely more important than what they look like on paper, I want the Gophers to win the Big Ten and have a shot at the national title.

I've always held those expectations, because I believe without them, you allow yourself to slide into taking what recruits you can get. And that's what has happened with previous Gophers coach Dan Monson and what I thought happened with his recruiting in 2007. I thought Blake Hoffarber was a great shooter in high school and a very good player. I didn't see that translating well necessarily to college, at least not early, though I never doubted his talent. Of course, I didn't expect the Gophers would have Tubby Smith coaching him.

As for Nolen, I was pretty sure (along with many) that he wasn't Big Ten caliber, though I almost always qualified that I hadn't seen him play. It was someone Monson could get. He didn't score in high school, and who doesn't score? A Big Ten quality player is going to score at will in HS. When I finally got a chance to watch him play, it quickly became obvious that the Gophers were better with Nolen on the floor. But I also noticed he wasn't ready for the Big Ten right then. His great plays were at the expense of some pretty bad competition, including the guards Iowa State put out there. I thought quality guards would shut him down and make his play inconsequential and ugly, and the Florida State game seemingly proved me right. At that point I still wasn't sure if he could be a positive impact against good teams once the Big 10 season started.

What I started to notice after FSU is that I was most comfortable with Nolen and Hoffarber on the floor. Nolen's basketball IQ is extremely high, so much higher than anyone Monson coached. We haven't seen a true point guard in these parts for a long time. He is truly selfless on the floor, and it occurs to me that's why he wasn't scoring in high school. When Al Nolen is ready to play in the B10 against the top teams and top guards, I have no doubt that the team will play on a high level, relatively, because of him. Is that now? We'll find out here quickly as the Gophers play the Indiana Hoosiers in just a few hours.

Nolen is a good ball-handler, a hard-working defensive player with quick hands, a good passer who will get better when he understands he can't get away with every fancy pass against better competition, and he creates a sense of calm on the floor. I think he has a soft shot that will eventually be a dangerous weapon on the rare occasions when needed. He has the ability to penetrate somewhat, though we still need to see whether he can take top guards and finish. I don't see it right now, but there is potential. I'm unsure of his half-court defense on the ball, whether he can guard a guy like Indiana's Eric Gordon and his penetration, but I have no doubts that part of his defense will develop if it's not there already.

I'm of the belief, though, that there is no reason we can't recruit great players, including a great PG. I have no doubt that if Nolen is the primary PG for a very good squad that the Gophers can possibly win the Big 10 in 2-3 years. But he'll only really be a star in our memories, much as Arriel McDonald. A 5-star PG recruit who is an amazing threat when he has the ball can be the ultimate weapon. And an experience Nolen teamed with someone like that will be a perfect combo to lead the Gophers to the promised land.

Some people have compared Nolen to 1994 recruit and Final Four PG Eric Harris. I agree, except I think Nolen might be even better as a freshman. Of course, not as much was needed from Harris on that year's NCAA tourney team. The talent on this Gophers version is spotty, and there is no way this team dances without Nolen. I think Nolen is solid now and will end up being very good, but I just don't see him ever being a star, the definition of which is the ability to completely take over a game and change its outcome on his own. He'll always be a solid piece, though.

Tonight we have an opportunity to evaluate where he is on the ladder toward becoming a quality Big Ten point guard.

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