From the start of last season, it was obvious that Al Nolen would be pleasent surprise. He was clearly an above average defensive player, and didn’t take too much away from the offense. At least that was the conventional wisdom until the Michigan State home game last January. A Gopher team that nearly won in East Lansing a few weeks earlier and barely lost to a then highly ranked pre-collapse Indiana team looked absolutely dreadful on offense and could never quite get the stop they needed. Nolen was out with a thigh injury, and it probably cost the Gophers the game. At the very least, Drew Neitzel would not have made five three-pointers.
What we like
Al Nolen is the best perimeter defender the Gophers have had since Eric Harris. He is not only a lock down defender, but he can force plenty of turnover. Those turnovers more often than not led to fast-break baskets, which were the life blood of a Gopher offense that regularly struggled when they actually needed to run something. He led the team in steals, with nearly two per game. But he also led the team in assists and assist to turnover ratio, as a Freshman.
What needs to improve
The only thing keeping Al Nolen from being an elite point guard is his shooting. He shot less than 33% from the field and his three-point shooting was worse than that, barely breaking 29%. Unlike Kevin Payton, he is a credible offensive threat, in the sense that he will dive to the basket and will take outside shots when he has the opportunity, but he doesn’t draw the defense’s attention. His poor shooting gives defenses the option to double team interior players or hedge towards the better shooters that the Gophers have.
What to expect
If his performance at “Tubby’s Tip-off” is any indication, Al Nolen’s shooting woes may be over. He made several three pointers, including one from well beyond NBA range. He also looks much strongers, which should help to prevent injuries. His already impressive defensive skills will only be helped by a much more athletic team, and the addition of Devoe Joseph will make the Gophers’ perimeter defense all the more impressive. In short, expect more of the same with better shooting, and because of those, a much improved team.