Tubby Smith has engineered a remarkable turnaround at the University of Minnesota. Just two seasons removed from a disastrous 2006-2007 campaign, the Golden Gophers won 22 games and returned to the NCAA tournament. Most of the 2008-2009 roster is returning and expectations for next season are high. The most significant question surrounding this team is whether or not a player will emerge as a legitimate star. One nominee is junior point guard Al Nolen, who has shown flashes in the past, but is not nearly consistent enough to stand out at this level. With another year of experience under his belt, he certainly has potential to emerge as an interesting player.
At first glance, Nolen is slightly undersized for the NBA point guard position. Though he is just 6'1, he has a wiry, 180-pound frame with a good wingspan and looks as though he can continue to get stronger. He is also a good athlete, not only in terms of his explosiveness and leaping ability, but also his quickness and agility. He has the physical tools to be a factor at the collegiate level and with some more time in the weight room, he would not look out of place in the NBA.
Looking at Nolen's offensive game, however, reveals how far he has to go before being considered a legitimate NBA prospect. At this point, Nolen is mainly a set-shooter, and while he could develop into a solid catch-and-shoot player over time, he must work on his shooting fundamentals if he wants to become a better scoring threat. Last season, he had a tendency to push the ball with his arms, concentrating most of his shooting motion in his upper body and making it nearly impossible to establish a consistent release point. His shooting motion is too deliberate as well, and while he already does not have the quickest trigger, he needs to work on getting his feet under him and squaring up to the basket. Expanding on the flashes of a mid-range game that he showed at times last season would also go a long way towards increasing his stock in the eyes of NBA scouts.
Though Nolen's offense is nowhere near NBA level at this stage, his point guard ability presents plenty of questions, as well. For one, he does not seem to have the necessary decision making ability to play the point guard position at the next level. He is caught far too often holding the ball until the final seconds of the shot clock only to force a wild attempt at the buzzer. Similarly, he will periodically pick up his dribble in awkward positions where he does not have a clean shot or a plan of what to do next. He has shown potential in establishing a drive-and-dish game, but he sometimes has tunnel vision on his way to the basket, which more often than not results in a missed lay up or a turnover. Lacking the touch around the basket and advanced ball handling ability to fully utilize his athleticism and solid body control, Nolen's slashing game is undeveloped and inefficient, even though he certainly has the potential to improve in the future. He does not run the pick-and-roll reliably, either. However, considering the depth and skill of Minnesota's frontcourt, Nolen will have plenty of opportunities to show scouts that he can run the pick and roll effectively.
While Nolen is as raw as point guards come on the offensive end, he is the leader of one of the NCAA's top returning team defenses. He possesses outstanding lateral quickness, which, combined with his long arms and active hands, makes him a stellar perimeter defender. He does not give his man much room, either, though it would be nice to see him consistently run over screens rather than ducking under them. If he gets beaten, which happens occasionally because of his propensity to gamble defensively, it is not surprising to see him trail his man and find a way to interrupt his shot. He is a very crafty defender, but last season he sometimes looked apathetic down the stretch. Whether this is a matter of conditioning or effort is unknown, but next season, he will have to continue to prove himself as an overpowering defensive presence whenever he is on the floor if he wants to stay on scouts' radars.
Nolen has to make significant improvements and adjustments before he can be considered a legitimate NBA prospect. Showing scouts that he can score and run the point guard position effectively would be a good place to start, but working on his ball handling could open up his game even more. As a sophomore, Al Nolen showed flashes of possible NBA potential. Next season, he has the opportunity to improve on that campaign to show scouts that he is worth keeping an eye on in the future.