LAS VEGAS -- Early in the second quarter of a summer league game against the Cavaliers this week, 76ers coach Chad Iske pivoted on the sideline and walked toward the end of the bench. He looked up, down and back onto the floor. Anywhere, really, but in the direction of Nerlens Noel, the 6-foot-11 big man with the Kid ‘n Play flat top eagerly trying to make eye contact.
“He always wants back in the game so quick,” Iske said. “Every time I look at him it’s, I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready."
Summer league rosters are generally divided into two types of players. There are the rookies, such as Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, who are making their NBA debut. And there are fringe players -- the second-round picks, the journeymen, the vagabonds and the soon-to-be vagabonds -- who are hoping to do enough to earn an invitation to training camp. In some ways Noel, 20, who missed last season while recovering from a knee injury, fits into both categories. The sixth pick in the 2013 draft is a ballyhooed prospect and a curiosity, a product of Kentucky’s pro-producing factory with something to prove.
“He definitely wants to impress,” Iske said. “He wants to prove he’s the guy many thought that, if healthy, would have been the No. 1 pick.”
To recap: A defensive-minded human pogo stick, Noel was on track to lead a less than stellar draft class before tearing his left ACL against Florida in February of his freshman season. Noel slid to No. 6, and New Orleans promptly traded his rights to Philadelphia for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday. The rebuilding Sixers, Noel said, “put no pressure on me” to return. In fact, Noel says he could have come back in late March. But after discussions with his agent and team officials, he elected to sit out the remainder of the season.
“I was so frustrated,” Noel told SI.com. “Being on the road, being so involved in the film sessions, working out before the game and then having to put on a suit and sit on the bench, that was really tough. Thinking back, though, it was probably the best thing for me.”
The season wasn’t a total loss. He digested the playbook, familiarizing himself with the 76ers' sets for power forwards and centers. “I can run as a trailer big and a down-low big,” Noel said. He studied the handful of veterans -- Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes (who were both traded in February) and Thaddeus Young -- who freckled Philadelphia’s baby-faced roster and picked up good habits. “You have to have a consistent routine,” Noel said. “They came to the gym the same time, they got on the court at the same time. If you want to be a consistent pro, you have to have a consistent schedule.”
Noel's potential is obvious. His defensive reflexes are superior. In the first quarter against Cleveland, Cavaliers center Jack Cooley thought he had an easy layup. That is until Noel, coming from across the paint, recovered to block his shot. Minutes later, Matthew Dellavedova lofted a floater toward the rim. Nope. Noel, flashing his 7-4 wingspan, was there to redirect it. (He finished with four blocks to go with 12 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes.) Sixers coaches joked that they stopped counting the number of shots that he altered.
"My timing defensively is back, for the most part," said a smiling Noel, who has played twice in Las Vegas and appeared in four games at the Orlando summer league two weeks ago.
Philadelphia isn't expecting Noel to be a savior. He is an elite shot blocker, having averaged 4.4 in 24 games for Kentucky, but at a listed 228 pounds he can be pushed around.
“He’s going to have to learn how to deal with bigger guys in the post,” Iske said. “We did see a rapid change in him from the beginning to the end of last season. There is a huge difference in the definition of his chest and his arms. The legs are skinny and they will probably always be a little skinny. But he has great speed and that will be an asset.”
Noel is limited offensively. His speed makes him a threat in transition, and he hopes to run for easy baskets alongside Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, a former AAU teammate in Boston. At Kentucky, Iske said, Noel was “pretty much just a pick-and-roll guy looking for dunks." Noel said he worked on his post play while rehabilitating, but there's been little evidence of that at summer league.
“We’re trying to figure [Noel’s offense] out,” Iske said. “We’re spending a lot of time on his free-throw shooting. In our offense we play through the bigs on the elbow a decent amount and we have found that he is a gifted passer. He is so quick with the first dribble, too, that he has an ability to get to the rim. But it’s going to take time.”
Philadelphia seems to have plenty of it. After acquiring Noel and suffering through a 19-63 season, the Sixers, armed with two lottery choices, landed one player who won’t play for them next season (Turkey-bound No. 12 pick Dario Saric) and another (No. 3 Joel Embiid) who is recovering from a serious foot injury. General manager Sam Hinkie is playing the long game, willing to endure an atrocious season or two to set a strong foundation for the future.
The losing was difficult for Noel to watch last season. “Dropping 26 games in a row was brutal,” he said, referring to Philadelphia's record-tying skid. Another challenging season could be in store for a team with so much youth, but Noel understands the team's vision.
“We’re building something from the ground up,” Noel said. “We have done a great job building up a young core. Me and Joel are going to play really well together. Moving forward, we’re in a great position.”