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October 1, 2012
Already there are t-shirts.
They feature the silhouette of Nerlens Noel's head, that haircut of his extending well off the head. They have catchy phrases like "You FLAT out can't TOP the Cats." The Kentucky freshman has marketable hair. He hasn't played a game.
Noel knew it would be this way. He saw the marketing reach of Anthony Davis' unibrow a year ago and he knew he had a similarly sellable follicular feature.
"It's definitely like (the unibrow), but this is something I did for myself," Noel said. "I always loved it."
That dates back to his days watching Will Smith in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" before bed as a kid. Now all grown up, Noel - a 6-foot-10 forward from Everett, Mass. - is as comfortable under that hair as he is in his skin.
And if it leads to comparisons with Davis, last season's NCAA Player of the Year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player, well, it will hardly be where the parallels end.
Like Davis, who set Kentucky's career record with 186 blocked shots in a single season, Noel is a shot-swatter extraordinaire. Like Davis, he arrives in Lexington as something of an offensive project. They play the same position. They are close to the same size. Analogizing was inevitable. Noel knew that.
"You hear the comparisons a lot," Noel said. "You've got to know that he's his own player, I'm my own player. We do have our similarities in how we play, but at the end of the day, you've just got to bring what you can bring to the table."
What Noel brings is all John Calipari wants. Though the Kentucky coach also knows there will be comparisons made, he's already working to deflect them.
"He shouldn't be compared," Calipari said. "They're totally different. They're not even the same. Nerlens is going to give us a different type of game."
In particular, Calipari doesn't want Noel compared early on to Davis as a finished product. Though both players were considered among the top two in their respective high school classes, both will have arrived at Kentucky as raw talents in need of refinement.
It's easy, Calipari said, to forget that about Davis.
"(Davis) had absolutely no post game," Calipari said. "He was shaky shooting free throws until the end; he became a real good free-throw shooter. Physically couldn't hold his position. He did stuff and looked good, you know, running, but he came a long way as the year went on."
Davis could take his time to mature, Calipari said, because he was surrounded by so much talent, and the coach's hope is that Noel can be similarly free to grow without the burden of carrying a team.
For Noel, Davis' growth is a big-man blueprint. It's part of the reason he chose Kentucky in the first place. He wanted to play for the coaches who'd help Davis grow into what he was. And if he needed any pointers on how to follow that path, he got them from the man himself.
"Even hanging out with him (in August), he told me he had limitations coming in and he didn't feel too comfortable in the post himself," Noel said. "But he just really put his mind to it and really focused and really started to come along. Hearing that from him, you've just got to do the same, just really stay focused towards becoming a better player."
And though Noel was the No. 2 player in the 2012 Rivals150, he knows he has strides to make.
For starters, he's still working to catch up to his teammates who spent the summer in Lexington conditioning and going through abbreviated practice time with Calipari and the UK staff.
Because Noel opted to reclassify from the 2013 class to his original 2012 class, he had additional schoolwork to complete at the Tilton School before he could be cleared academically at Kentucky.
His eligibility issues might not all be resolved.
Sports Illustrated reported in August that the NCAA is investigating "the cast of characters that surrounded Noel's recruitment and how Noel paid for his unofficial visits."
"They do this kind of review with a bunch of kids," Calipari said. "And the review, when you change (classes), you're reclassifying, there's a red flag. And then some people are mad that you reclassified? There's another red flag. And they go through the process, but it's a review. So we feel confident. We feel pretty good about it."
Noel hasn't discussed the NCAA issue. But he knew that there would be hurdles to hop in switching to the 2012 class. Ultimately, he thought it was worth the risk, having accomplished all he could at the high school level.
"I never really regretted (reclassifying), but there were times I knew it would be tougher than I thought," Noel said. "But at the end of the day, I wanted to be here playing basketball, and that's what I really put my mind towards."
That put basketball on the back burner in the spring and summer. He arrived out of shape and rusty. But the natural gifts are there.
"If a kid is quick - really quick - going to the ball, now he's got a chance of being special," Calipari said. "Anthony was really quick getting to balls. Michael (Kidd-) Gilchrist was really quick. Now we had two that were just 'Bang!' to balls. Well, this kid is the same way. He's the quickest on our team getting to balls and doing stuff like that."
As such, Calipari is expecting big things from Noel, who's expecting them too.
Noel hasn't shied away from the oversized expectations that come with playing at Kentucky. On his Twitter account, he's routinely referred to winning the school's ninth NCAA championship.
"Seeing how much the fans love it, love their basketball down here, you've got to make sure you give back to them, just show them that you're in it, too, you love the game yourself," Noel said. "It's something special down here."