Nerlens Noel Discusses His Recovery and Potential Return This Season

Jared ZwerlingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 17, 2014

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This week, the Philadelphia 76ers cleared Nerlens Noel for one-on-one contact, a significant step in his left ACL recovery process as he attempts to make his NBA debut this season.

The team made the decision after Noel, the No. 6 pick in last year's draft, went last week with Sixers head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson to meet with well-renowned orthopedic surgeon to the pros, Dr. James Andrews, and his physical therapy chief, Kevin Wilk.

Wilk, who managed Noel's rehab program for about six months after Dr. Andrews performed the surgery last March, said the evaluation that tested his developments, deficiencies and on-court movements "went extremely well."

"I'm very excited," Noel told Bleacher Report on Thursday, more than 11 months since he suffered the injury as a freshman at Kentucky. "I'm really excited to start playing and really show how much I care about his team, and how much I want to bring a lot of light to it and bring it back to that championship top."

Keep in mind that Noel said his play this season is not definite, but he would "love to return after the All-Star Game," which is the latest timetable.

Noel is a much different-looking and improved player as he gets closer to actual game action. For starters, from the time Noel started working with Wilk in March until mid-September last year, he gained 21 pounds of muscle.

That impressed Wilk, who's been Dr. Andrews' behind-the-scenes right-hand man for 25 years and has worked with, to name a few notables, Scottie Pippen, Chris Webber, Vince Carter, Jamal Crawford and Shaun Livingston. Wilk said that kind of strength gain is "pretty tough" to do for a player with his kind of 6'10", lanky frame.

"The intention was let's get him bigger, so he's not taking a beating because he's just so thin and light," Wilk said of the 6'10" Noel, listed at 228 pounds in college. "When somebody is banging on him, there shouldn't be as much stress on that reconstructed knee."

Noel, who said he feels more explosive, also worked on his biggest area of offensive growth—outside shooting—at the Champion Sports Medicine complex in Birmingham, Ala., which is a collaboration with the Andrews Sports Medicine And Orthopaedic Center. Noel has continued to do so with Sixers coach Brett Brown after every practice and before each game.

"I've definitely benefited from the work with one-hand ball shooting," Noel said. "I've already seen a difference in my free throws, and my shot's coming along as well."

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 7:  Nerlens Noel #4 and Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers practice getting ready for their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the NBA Global Games on October 7, 2013 at the Phones 4u Arena in Manchester, En
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Brown has also been in Noel's ear during games, pointing out player and team tendencies.

Speaking of players, Noel and Sixers assistant coaches have been breaking down game film of Kevin Garnett—his favorite player growing up—and Amar'e Stoudemire during his Phoenix Suns days. That's when he dominated the game with his pick-and-roll finishing ability and scoring around the basket, and Noel has been studying his skill set and paying close attention to his footwork.

"Depending on what I do this year, if I play or not, I'll definitely have a good idea of what I really need to work on," he said, "Just sitting on the bench, it's really helped me grind, just seeing how fast the game is. I know I won't completely know until I start playing, but even when I'm watching, Coach Brown just tells me things to watch out for. They've definitely benefited me in a very good way, and I think when I do come back through the whole ACL process, I will be able to come back stronger mentally and physically."

Before this week, the most basketball work Noel was recently doing with his Sixers teammates included on-court drills with no contact. Future hurdles are taking contact in two-on-two, three-on-three and ultimately five-on-five scrimmages, which should come preceding the All-Star break if all goes well.

Noel is an extremely hard worker—Wilk noted that he never missed a rep during any workout during their time together—but the 19-year-old is still being cautious so there are "no concerns and no doubts." However, Noel feels that playing this season would be a good measuring stick to see how he stacks up against the competition and what he'll need to work on this summer while fully healthy, barring any injury.

When Noel does hit the NBA court, he should fit in nicely with the Sixers, who could use a shot-blocking presence—he has a ridiculous 7'4" wingspan—and a big man who can capitalize in transition based on their style of play. The Sixers have the fastest pace in the league (102.46), which is an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes by a team. Noel is also agile enough to run back on defense and protect the rim while an opponent is attacking on a fast break.

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 15:  Nerlens Noel #4 and Michael Carter-Williams #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers look on from the bench during their 113-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 15, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expre
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Initially, Noel should score most of his points off pick-and-rolls, cross screens and offensive putbacks. Knocking down 15-footers should come in time.

A key chemistry element will be Noel's comfort level with point guard Michael Carter-Williams, his former AAU teammate with the Boston Amateur Basketball Club.

"I'm definitely excited for it," Noel said. "Going back to our AAU days in high school, I think we were a great tandem, and I think we can do special things at this level. Knowing that both of us are a lot more along than we were then, I think it will be a great time, and I think we'll play off each other very well."

With Carter-Williams and small forward Evan Turner shining as two-way players this season—17.6 points and 2.6 steals per game, and 19.0 points and 1.0 steals, respectively—perhaps Noel is the missing intangible for the 13-25 Sixers based on how he plays. With the uncertainty in the Eastern Conference, a playoff seed is still largely in the picture, and Noel could help them get there.


Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.