Nerlens Noel Remains NBA's Most Intriguing Rookie After Year Lost to Injury

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Nerlens Noel Remains NBA's Most Intriguing Rookie After Year Lost to Injury
Matt Lowe

Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins won't be attending the NBA draft combine this week in Chicago, a fact that would appear to complicate an important offseason of rebuilding for a team such as the Philadelphia 76ers. After finishing 19-63 this season, the Sixers have long been game-planning for what's likely to come: a top-five pick in the upcoming draft and the 10th selection from New Orleans (there's a 96 percent chance of that happening).

But regardless of what unfolds on June 26, the Sixers already have the most compelling rookie entering next season. That would be Nerlens Noel, the 6'11" big man who's the future centerpiece of the team on both ends of the floor. Noel's a rare and enticing combination: His motor draws comparisons to Joakim Noah's, his athleticism to DeAndre Jordan's, his defensive mindset to Anthony Davis' and his dribbling ability to Dirk Nowitzki's.

"He is an elite athlete; he is a different athlete," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "There's a speed, there's a quickness—he has the ability to jump twice all under the mentality of he wants to play defense. His athleticism is something special, and now we've just got to continue to add weight to his body and to teach him when to use it. We pride ourselves on playing with a lot of pace, and I think he'll fit in tremendously in that regard next season."

Noel was drafted sixth overall last year and missed all of 2013-14 recovering from a torn left ACL suffered during his first and only year at Kentucky. Since then, he's become more explosive, has added 10 pounds of muscle at 227 (he's aiming for 235 by the end of the summer) and has developed fluid-looking hook shots (sky and hook). His outside shot has also improved, though it's still a work in progress.

Looking ahead, Noel is set for his first public NBA competition in July at the Vegas summer league. Then he'll make his actual debut in the fall.

"Right now, it's a new chapter," Noel said recently, reflecting on his NBA development back in his hometown of Everett, Massachusetts. "I think I'm in a great position, and I'm going to work my butt off this offseason, work on the little things that I learned over the course of the season."

Matt Lowe / Special to Bleacher Report

 

Inside Noel's growth and Brown's impact

While watching from the bench this season, Noel lost count of how many times he envisioned throwing down a dunk while running a pick-and-roll with Michael Carter-Williams, his longtime friend and former AAU teammate, who's the Sixers' starting point guard and the newly crowned Rookie of the Year.

"Running up and down, it's really a great offense for me to utilize my quickness and my agility," Noel said. "I can't even tell you how many times coach Brett Brown was just coming up to me during games telling me how good I would be in the offense."

Noel said early in the season he would "get real frustrated and kind of depressed," but he learned to funnel his emotions better. And that avenue was rehab; it was his punching bag to let out steam.

"I had a lot of 'I just want to play' moments," he said. "But I just channeled all my aggression of wanting to play into my rehab, knowing that the harder I work, the harder I'm going to come back."

Noel's rehab started last spring and continued all summer at the prestigious Champion Sports Medicine (CSM) complex in Birmingham, Alabama. There, Noel was managed by CSM's head of physical therapy, Kevin Wilk, who collaborates with Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon who performed the surgery.

Once the season started, Noel was in the hands of Brown, the former director of player development for the San Antonio Spurs, where he worked under coach Gregg Popovich from 2007 to 2013. Brown's focus at first with Noel was "establishing a culture, establishing behaviors and growing him to be an emerging leader."

Brown showed him game tape of proven NBA leaders—including Tim Duncan, whom Brown worked with for six years—and also clips of players talking to the media, for him to understand that side of the business. He even sent Noel the highlights of Kevin Durant's MVP acceptance speech, stressing the right way to carry yourself as an NBA professional. "I feel tremendous responsibility to Nerlens," Brown said.

During games, Brown would challenge Noel with coaching lessons.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

"I'd say, 'Nerlens, tell me what you see, offense, defense, whatever," he said. "'Nerlens, what do you like about Joakim Noah? Tell me about Tyson Chandler. Who do you think you're going to go grow to? Why do you like them? Nerlens, what do you think about the way that we're guarding the pick-and-roll? You think we're going to make adjustments? Nerlens, what do you think about the pace of the game? You think we're playing a little bit too slow or it's a little bit ratty and we're taking poor shots?'"

What did Brown discover about Noel in those moments?

"I was really taken aback at how insightful and articulate he was," Brown said. "He was excellent at expressing himself, and he's very good at retaining information. Initially, he's quiet, but he's very endearing. I really naturally take to him. I think he's a good person, and he's highly competitive. I'm just attracted to those two qualities."

The other priority throughout the season was for Noel to work on his outside shot, which Brown said needed "a total makeover." In fact, Brown said teaching him how to shoot followed the same instruction he was giving his 9-year-old son, Sam. At the beginning, Noel would shoot with his elbow out and kind of throw the ball to the rim with a very low trajectory.

"With Nerlens' shot, it was everything—and I mean everything," he said. "We had to start from ground zero."

Brown said technique changes started simply with form shooting. For about three months, Noel only shot one-handed free throws. Brown didn't even allow him to use his guide hand until after Christmas. During that time, Brown worked on his base, balance and footwork. Noel had a tendency to put too much weight on his right foot—he's right-handed—and that would naturally set him off in that direction.

During the season, it was customary to see Noel and Brown on the court together before games—a rare sight because the head coach is usually immersed during that time with pregame preparation. But being one of the first player development directors in the league, Brown saw working one-on-one with Noel as "an incredible opportunity."

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

"My nature is I love being with my players, I like being on the court with my players," Brown said. "Now being a head coach, development is everything to me. I feel that I am, at times, the head coach of a university."

During the season, Noel realized the uniqueness of the attention Brown was giving him, which included practices and shootarounds.

"Early in the season, some people around the NBA would say, 'It's crazy that your head coach is working with you so much,'" Noel said. "Even my agent said, 'It's not common to see a head coach working with a player.' As the season went along, I really didn't see any head coaches working with their players before games. I'm really lucky and thankful to have a coach like Brett Brown."

Brown graded Noel's current shot a C- after coming in as an F. The goal is a B- by the start of the season, which, in Brown's estimation, means 60 percent accuracy from the foul line. The hope is to reach 70 percent by next spring.

"I think when we do that, you're going to see carryover into like what you saw from Amar'e [Stoudemire] or KG [Kevin Garnett], where they can shoot an elbow jump shot or catch, turn and face," Brown said. "It's three to five years away. Next year is going to be about the free throw. I think his growth from a confidence level this year has been really special."

Along with Brown's mentoring, Noel also received individual low-post instruction from 13-year NBA veteran Greg Foster, who recently wrapped up his first season as the Sixers' player development coach. When Noel finally was able to put his new skills to use in early March—his first scrimmages in more than a year—he said he wasn't even thinking about the injury.

"I'm 100 percent past it," he said. "I'm at 14 months now. It's not in the back of my mind."

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

 

Inside Noel's perception of the playoffs and Philly's future

While visiting the Boston area, Bleacher Report had the opportunity to take in some postseason action with Noel at the Empire Restaurant and Lounge. What was on his mind while watching the games?

Noel has been scrutinizing big men like Noah and LaMarcus Aldridge while carefully studying the different variations of the pick-and-roll, which eventually should be his go-to setup. Initially, though, the unrefined Noel will get most of his points off of putbacks and from passes close to the basket. Being able to finish with either hand—rare for a big manis sure to be a benefit, no matter the approach.

Gary Dineen/Getty Images
Nerlens Noel has studied the moves of Joakim Noah in the playoffs to help expand his offensive game.

"You always hear about how much the pick-and-roll is so valued in the NBA growing up, but you never really know until you get there to see how many things you can play off the pick-and-roll," Noel said. "I mean, it's really the only unstoppable play. There are so many counters, like double pick-and-rolls, and if the ball comes off you can re-screen or brush or roll. There are different combos, or the pick-and-pop.

"There are a lot of interchangeable things you can include in it. That's something I was working on with Michael toward the end of the season, and we're going to pick up on it again. We have our own unique ability—we're both long, athletic, quick, fastand I think that can be a real weapon in our offense in the years to come."

Regarding the pick-and-pop, Noel said that's Step 2 in his evolution in the screening game.

"I think that would be big for my part of my game, being able to utilize my quickness to have [defenders] come out and guard me, one dribble to the basket," he said. "I think it not only will make me better, but will let my teammates around me draw other players."

Noel was particularly struck by the physicality of the playoffs, noting that while there are drop-offs in play during the season, it's consistently high impact and full throttle in the postseason. But to fully understand the contrast, he knows he'll need to experience it for himself.

"You can watch it as close as you are and really see how some players do this and how physical it is, but nobody knows how hard LeBron [James] felt that elbow from Josh McRoberts [in the first round]. That's all firsthand experience I feel," he said. "You can only take so much in from being courtside and learning as much as you can. I've been in a lot of physical games, but I don't think there's anything that will prepare you for the NBA, especially in the playoffs.

"I mean, you see how much it really kicks up—every possession matters, and you see those guys busting their butts on every possession as opposed to the 63rd game in the regular season. There is a big difference. That's what I'm seeing now."

Ultimately, Noel expects he'll set the Sixers' tempo with defense, which was his calling card in the draft. For now, he works off of instinct, and if he gets mixed up in a defensive set, he has the quickness, reaction time and long standing reach (9'2") to still get a steal or deflection. As the moment before his knee injury demonstrated, when he chased down Florida Gators guard Mike Rosario on a fast break and blocked his shot, Noel has shown a tenacity on the defensive end and a willingness to dive on the floor for loose balls.

Noel foresees a time when his defense generates a lot of breakaway opportunities in Philadelphia with his longtime running mate Carter-Williams. And if the Sixers draft one of the two premier, versatile wings in the draft, Parker or Wiggins, to complement Noel and MCW—Noel likes Parker, especially for his shooting—the Sixers will have a terrific trio in the open court.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
A former AAU teammate of Michael Carter-Williams, Noel believes their familiarity on the floor will help speed the Sixers' rebuilding.

"It was big playing with [Carter-Williams back in AAU]," Noel said. "Defensively, we would always find each other in transition. He's a natural point guard with a scoring ability, and I think that's really going to be a big factor for us going along in the future.

"I think he'll make it easier for me in some ways, having him draw attention and me being able to block shots and him striving in transition. He's tough to guard in transition because he's so long and athletic. If I'm blocking shots and he starts the fast break, I'll catch up. So we're going to have a lot of fun with each other because we already have the unity and the chemistry."

Noel joked around that when he tweeted "4/4/14" during the season, hinting at an NBA debut date, it was actually to highlight his anticipation for the release of the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But in all honesty, Noel did want to take the court that night, but the Sixers inevitably didn't want to risk it with one of their franchise players. It's all part of a three- to five-year plan of not just making the playoffs, but "greater than that," Brown said.

For Noel, imagining Philadelphia back in playoffs, he said, "That would mean the world to me."

"Not just for me, but the city of Philadelphia," he continued. "It's a blue-collar city. They work for everything they have. It would mean a lot for me to be a part of something in Philadelphia to take them back to the promised land and get right back to the playoffs along with great players around me. I want to give Philly a reason to be happy because during the Allen Iverson days, it was one of the best cities to be in. That's what I'm really focused on—working my butt off to get to the playoffs."

 

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

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