"I'd go to talk to him, and he'd look away bashfully," Brown said in his office last week in Philadelphia. "He has those saucer-shaped eyes, and you just want to hug him. Then I'll play text tag with him, and then all of a sudden he just blossoms [by being more expressive], like, 'Really? You're this thoughtful, articulate, well thought out?'
"There's a lot more going on in Nerlens Noel than people know."
Those unique qualities have led him this season to becoming a Rookie of the Year favorite; nearly joining a group of only four players in NBA history—Bobby Jones, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Gerald Wallace—who have averaged at least two blocks and two steals per game; being the only player in the top 10 in blocks and steals per game; finishing with the most double-doubles among all rookies (18); and only missing six games after sitting out all of 2013-14 recovering from ACL surgery.
"That could be the most impressive stat that he's delivered on—durability, toughness," Brown said.
But there's a more revealing, and perhaps more telling, stat that punctuates Noel's impact. This season, Brown—assisted by his advanced analytics guru, Lance Pearson, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive and neural systems—created an "effort chart" actually quantifying key intangibles. Each game, eight Sixers staffers would track different metrics, including shot contests, hustle plays and how quickly players attacked different areas after an offensive miss and filled sections of the court defending in transition. After the game, the overall team and each player would receive a grade, 1-20, with the latter being the highest.
Brown said more than 60 percent of the time in games this season, the team finished at a respectable 16. As for Noel, more than 60 percent of the time he was better than 12 in games. But the most significant number is this: When he was an 18 or higher, the Sixers won 15 of the 18 games.
"When you see us win games or play with the energy that we want, it's led by Nerlens," Brown said.
Last week in Philly, Bleacher Report sat down for dinner with Noel, three days before his 21st birthday, at Buddakan—about 30 minutes from his home in Conshohocken—going inside his rookie season, from his evolution on the court to the Sixers' rebuilding culture and future. Below is how the conversation unfolded, presented from his perspective and edited for clarity and length.
My struggles early on this season were more of a mental thing. Gaining that experience helps slow the game down in your head, and you make your moves more confidently. You learn how to place yourself on the court, which started from working last season with Greg Foster, now a Bucks assistant coach, who I'll train with a bit this summer. Greg really helped me expand my game playing more of a face-up way, especially learning how defenders position themselves.
Reading your defender, instead of actually reading yourself and telegraphing a move, was something that took me a while to learn as I started seeing how certain players play. You learn how to get them going one way and always have a counter to that. I've also been working on pick-and-roll angles and rolls, as well as posting up more aggressively and knowing when to call loudly for the ball.
Even before my rookie season, starting in 2013, I worked closely with Brett to completely rebuild my shot. He didn't even want me to bring my guide hand over until January of last season. The early focus was one-handed shots with a tight elbow setup just to keep the technique. Before then, I would shoot with a release from the side of my head and the ball would rotate sideways. In fact, at Kentucky, I hadn't taken a jump shot the whole year. But I was able to finish at nearly 61 percent from the free-throw line this season, which was the team's goal for me.
The Sixers' attention to details is just crazy—the Sixers have GoPro cameras in the practice facility, and they know the percentages for everything. Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie has come up to me before and told me my free-throw percentage in practice. And nobody was even in the gym. There are so many metrics, and I'm still learning how to read them. But the most important ones for me are the opponents' field-goal percentage and defensive points in the paint.
The Sixers also film your shot, and they'll put it into an app where you see the progression of it over time and see the little things that you can fix. I think that's what really helped me so much, being able to visualize my shot, see it on the app and take another shot. The team also shows me the footwork of my idol Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Amar'e Stoudemire—their foot placement and how they step and explode to knock down 15-footers consistently.
Brett has even gotten Tim and Gregg Popovich—they all know each other from their San Antonio days together—to come speak to our team. Tim talked about work ethic, and Gregg talked about what it takes to win a championship. Also, Brett brought in Kevin Durant [to talk] about what he went through in Seattle, and Julius Erving [to talk] about the Sixers tradition. I have used that as motivation to keep pushing myself.
One conversation with an NBA veteran really stands out. It was with Richard Jefferson during a game early in the season when I felt like I was struggling. He just told me that he's had 100 days like these in his career, and I've got to keep my head up and stay encouraged and continue to keep working.
My first big moment in the NBA came on the defensive end against Dwight Howard in our fourth game of the season. He was the type of center that I watched growing up, and I held him to 11 points in 36 minutes. In the same game, I had one of my most memorable blocks yet against James Harden. Once I saw him make the crossover, I knew he was going to go hard, so I just said, "I've got to meet him."
My determination started from watching how hard my mother, Dorcina, worked. We're a family of four kids—I have two older brothers and a little sister—and she worked from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. It definitely instilled a work ethic in me, and I'm still reminded of it to this day. I apply it to everything I do. My defensive quickness and lateral ability came from playing football with my brother, Rodman, who entered the NFL draft this year.
With my quickness, I always try to pickpocket guards, but sometimes at this level you can't; you can get away with it in college. At the beginning of the year, I was trying to get every steal in the post. But when I disciplined myself early on, not getting into foul trouble and being able to stay on the court, it helped my team a lot.
Only four players in NBA history have averaged at least two blocks and two steals per game in a season. It's definitely an honor to be close to that type of company, but I think I'm still a long way from where I want to be. Winning Rookie of the Year would be appreciated, but I need to continue to just focus on me and what I have to do to reach the level of play like an All-Star and be an All-Star.
This season, we've heard the word "tanking," and it never really stays well with any of us because we know what we're about, and we want to win every game. We don't intentionally try to lose. After finishing 26th in defensive rating in 2013-14, we're in the top 15 this season, and I think it shows how hard we play. That's what really matters playing here in the city of Philly.
At times you feel frustrated with losing, but I think we do such a great job of staying positive, staying close-knit. We never get into too much with what people say because we play unselfishly, we move the ball and we play hard. We always have each other's backs, and we have fun playing at the same time.
It's definitely a process, and it helps a lot when you have such a support in the coaching staff that really cares about your development. Sam's also been real supportive, and it's been a great process seeing what he's done. He has all of our trust, and we give everything we can.
And the fans, while they were really nervous in the beginning, are behind us. They know it's a process, too, and it's going to take time to put the right pieces together. As we get older and as we get better—and with Joel Embiid coming back and all the future draft picks—we have a lot of potential to instantly become more of a dominant team in this league. We especially need shooters to stretch the floor, if Joel and I are going to be able to play together.
Joel and I are already close off the court, playing a lot of NBA 2K video games together. While he's not scrimmaging yet, there haven't been any setbacks. He's looking real good and has a touch from the outside. And I think on the defensive end, we're going to be able to wreak havoc.
In the last 10 games or so, Brett has actually made me a power forward, with the thought that Joel would be at center next season. It's different because I've been switching on pick-and-rolls and defending point guards. Brett has even put me in isolation situations at the top of the key to try to win a game.
Personally, I've taken cues from stretch 4s LaMarcus Aldridge and my fellow Wildcat Anthony Davis, who's around 240 pounds, which is my goal to reach, with now weighing around 223. [To determine how to play Noel and Embiid cohesively, Brown and his coaching staff have been analyzing film of Duncan and David Robinson, Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and other standout 4-5 duos.]
My next stop is the Philippines later this month for an NBA camp, and then I'll be traveling to Italy in May for two weeks just to relax. But for the most part this summer, I'll be in Philadelphia and Newport, Rhode Island, training and working more on my jump shot.
I think we're going to make that playoff push next season, and as for 2017? I've already played the Finals matchup on NBA 2K: Philadelphia vs. Portland.