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Q&A: Nerlens Noel is ready to go

By James Herbert | NBA writer

Nerlens Noel is set to begin his NBA career.  (USATSI)
Nerlens Noel is set to begin his NBA career. (USATSI)

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Nerlens Noel was going to be the first player taken in the 2013 NBA Draft. Instead, as a result of a torn ACL that would keep him sidelined for the entire 2013-2014 season, he fell five spots. The Philadelphia 76ers managed to trade for the pick, and with how he's handled the rehab process and how he looked at summer league, they're lucky to have him. While preparing to start giving Philly fans something to cheer about, Noel discussed the road back and what lies ahead.

Summer league means different things for different people. How important was it for you?

It was very important for me to play well, considering not playing in 18 months. It meant a lot for me to go out there and play. I was really nervous, but I prepared well for it. And all the work leading up to it, I worked my butt off to get back and I definitely thought it paid off.

Now that you've gotten a chance to play with some of the guys that your team acquired on draft night -- not all of them -- do you see what the plan is, do you start thinking about how good these guys are going to be in a couple of years?

Yeah, definitely. Even since I've gotten drafted, being around these guys and them really giving me the talks about becoming a professional, I have. Seeing all these guys, especially the guys we've drafted, I've begun to see what they actually can become. Looking at it in that sense, seeing K.J. [McDaniels], he's a 6-5 wingman that's an aggressive defender that likes to block shots. And that's what we're going to be built off of: a defensive team that's long. Especially with Jerami [Grant], those guys I think can be great defensive players down the road in this league. They're going to be young in this league, but they're definitely going to grow, just like I am and everybody else that's on our team that's 20, 21 years old. I think we're really in a great position to be one of the best defensive teams in this league in the years to come and definitely contending soon.

How often do you think about or picture playing in that first official game?

I still think about it a lot. I think that's really going to be the actual debut. There's a lot of anticipation towards that, from myself. I want to keep working, continue working on the things I have to do to be effective. And continue to work on my body, the things I need to work on to be a complete player down the road.

You've said down the road you and Joel Embiid will be dominant. It's a long way away, but how much are you looking forward to getting out there and competing with him?

I think about it nearly every day. I imagine a lot about what we can be. I think we're in such a great position, a great point guard in Michael Carter, such a long point guard that can be able to create. Me and him down there, defensively, I think that's already a known thing with great potential. And I think offensively something that's slept on as well, Jo being as big as he is, he's going to take a lot of size down there. And I think especially, simply off my quickness and developing everything I'm going to need to develop in the next couple of years, with my quickness and his size and great IQ of basketball, I think we have a great chance to be real dominant on both ends of the court.

What do you know about the NBA now that you didn't a year ago?

Wow. I think I've really been around it and have a feel for it. Because it's all about experience, and although I haven't gotten the experience to actually play, I mean I've sat there 82 games and been able to see how fast [the game is] and how draining the NBA season is and how much you have to take care of yourself and be able to live like a professional with taking care of your body, eating well. To see that first-hand, with not playing, I think it's going to go a long way for me.

Pregame, Nerlens Noel works with Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown.  (USATSI)
Pregame, Nerlens Noel works with Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown. (USATSI)

What's one word to describe Brett Brown?

Passionate.

What's unique about him?

I'd say the most unique thing about Brett is how much he cares about little things. Him coaching our Philly team, with his background coming from a prestigious program with the Spurs, you would think he'd be a guy that, as many rings as he has working with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu and just a great organization, you'd think he'd be a guy who's more relaxed about things. But he's really hands-on with everything. With everything with myself, he said he'd take it overboard. That's the most used phrase he said: "I'm going to take it overboard." He actually does. He cares about the 76ers organization, he really wants us as players and people to grow and become young men and be able to handle ourselves as young professionals.

How often does he tell you stories about the Spurs?

Those were the best parts. Especially when he'd tell stories about Tim Duncan, or every story about Pop and what Pop went through to get to coaching. He always gives us a lot of great insight, and how it's all about working, working, and staying confident, being positive about keeping the work ethic and developing a great culture within an organization like ours.

As a big Iverson fan growing up, what was it like to see his number retired?

It was definitely a special moment to be able to be part of that. And growing up watching Allen Iverson, he is part of the reason why I wore 3 in high school, 3 all growing up and 3 in college. Just to be able to be there and be a part of that organization, the first year I'm there they retire Allen Iverson's jersey, that's special I feel. For him to come back as often as he does and just show love to us and good advice and great words, I mean, he's a great. Every time he played, he played his heart out. He was definitely one of my role models.

With how the fans embraced him, not only for the player he was but the passion he had and the way that he played, does that make you kind of appreciate being in Philly and want to have that same connection with the city? 'Cause some people think he's from Philly even though he's not.

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely. That's definitely one of the things, you grow up never knowing where a player's from 'cause of how much love he gets from one city. Like Larry Bird back in the day, I thought he was from Boston. But I definitely want to be something special in this city. I've known about this city and appreciate them for how passionate they are about their sports. Not just basketball, just everything. They're die-hard. To do what Allen Iverson did, that doesn't come too often. I think we're in a great position as a team and and an organization to make this city happy and a special place for a game of basketball, taking it back to the playoffs and potentially the Finals.

I saw you Instagram the "Fo-Fo-Fo-Fo" with the Moses Malone jersey on. I don't know how many guys your age are even aware of Moses Malone, but how much of a basketball history buff are you?

I try to stay on my history. Every now and then I'll research a player that I really looked up to. I try to stay on it. Moses Malone was definitely a very influential player back in the day. I actually got his jersey a couple months ago and that was the first time I wore it. He was a player that I really read up on how much he's done for this city. I really wanted to show tribute.

Nerlens Noel walks to meet the commissioner later than expected.  (USATSI)
Nerlens Noel walks to meet the commissioner later than most expected. (USATSI)

June 27, 2013. That's 13 months and a bit ago when you were drafted. Does it feel like yesterday? Does it feel like longer than 13 months?

Damn. It feels like longer than 13 months, I'd say.

'Cause of the road back from injury?

I'd say just because of the road back, how many games I sat through, just how much frustration there was and how much I've gone through, not being able to play basketball in so long.

I remember that night, but even before that -- there were ESPN cameras on you for the lottery -- it seemed like a no-brainer that you'd go first. Draft night, most people thought you would. Were you anticipating going to Cleveland?

You know what, honestly, I did not know. The Cavs, with their general manager they had at that point, they were a real tricky organization. And I really had no clue. The night that I got hurt, coach Cal told me when we were flying back that night I could potentially fall five or six spots. From then on, I knew nothing was safe and I was not getting my emotions up, trying to be the No. 1 draft pick. I didn't, and everything went the way it did. And it was a blessing in disguise, so I feel great about it.

After the draft you said you you were going to make those five teams pay. Are you still using that as motivation, are you going to circle those games on the calendar?

Over this last year, it's been such a long year and I've come to a point where it's not a revenge thing. Those teams did what's best for their organizations, and it's nothing like that. I think it helped fuel me through the whole rehab process and it helped motivate me. I'm back now and every game night on the calendar's circled.

The Sixers are betting on big things from Nerlens Noel.  (USATSI)
The Sixers are betting on big things from Nerlens Noel. (USATSI)

I read the story about you running into a young woman working two jobs and living in a homeless shelter, and you getting her Backstreet Boys tickets. The headline on Kentucky Sports Radio was "Nerlens being Nerlens" -- is this the kind of thing you're known for in Kentucky?

I've been doing this for a while now. I didn't expect it to go in the media or anything. I didn't even know she was homeless. I met her at the Friday's and she was a real personable young female, just started a conversation, she's telling me about the Backstreet Boys. And when I had left, I told my friend that it wouldn't be anything to get her some Backstreet Boys tickets. We did that, and then actually I found out she was homeless through Twitter. One of my buddies got her Twitter and then I saw a tweet that said she was homeless. That definitely made it a lot more worth it.

You've credited your mom for your work ethic, you have her name tattooed. A lot of us, myself included, we think, "My mom's the best," but can you put into words just how much she means to you?

I really can't put it into words. There's so much she's done for me and my family. Not just for me. For my older brothers, my little sister. What she did for four kids growing up, that takes it even farther. Just being beyond a great mother. How many hours she worked growing up, countless hours from 6 a.m., coming home at 11 [p.m.], that really just gives tribute to all of the work she's put in. I'm definitely feeling great to be able to take care of her now.

You posted the video of when you got her a car. What's it like to be able to do things like that for her?

It feels amazing. Growing up, with her never being home and always being at work, putting in long hours, I really felt my mom was a strong lady growing up. Going off to do all the things she went through to support and provide for my brothers and my little sister. It's special to be able to take care of her now. To be able to give her a car and take care of her, it means a lot.

You have two older, football-playing brothers, and you played when you were younger and it wasn't your choice to stop. How much did you love it?

Football was one of my favorite sports. Basketball, football and baseball, I played all three season after season growing up. I think that's what really helped with each part of my game. When I played football, I loved it growing up, and when I hit freshman year of high school the head coach for varsity football is the head coach for varsity basketball. So it was kind of like you're getting babied, myself and all the basketball players, if he puts us on the football team. And I still wanted to play competitively, but it got to a point where, freshman year, I played a little bit of varsity but I never got in. Then sophomore year I played JV and varsity, but right after sophomore year he said, "No more football."

How did you take that news?

I didn't take it lightly. You know what, I was understanding because at that point of barely ever playing and just standing out in the cold, I came to a realization it wasn't for me.

Nerlens Noel relaxes before last year's draft.  (USATSI)
Nerlens Noel relaxes before last year's draft. (USATSI)

Injuries change people in this league. How much do you think you've changed or grown since the day you got hurt?

I've grown a world. I've matured so much. Being able to be put in a position that I was put in, even being hurt and having to do what I did with the draft process and handle all the things I did being hurt, not many players are in the position of the limelight of a draft or a season. Not being able to show what I was capable of doing the whole time was probably the most frustrating part.

Like when Paul George got hurt, at first there's always a big outpouring of support. Was it most frustrating weeks or months after when you're kind of on your own and you have to stay patient?

Yeah, definitely. In the beginning, it's going to be a lot. Like I remember 18 months ago, when I had my injury, the next day I was laid up in bed and on the couch of our dorm. Everybody's walking back and forth from class and I'm there trying to watch ESPN, but my injury comes on every commercial. I couldn't even watch it. There were so many tweets, a lot of love, and that's when you haven't even started rehabbing. So then a couple months later, when you actually do start rehabbing, all the tweets and everything slows down. That's when you have to really stay focused and stay positive, especially, through the whole time. 'Cause there's going to be times when you just want to play basketball but you can't. You're so far away from that point, and you just have to continue to rehab.

I read that [physical therapist] Kevin Wilk's concern wasn't pushing you, but rather holding you back from doing too much too soon. Where did that drive come from?

The No. 1 thing for me was everyone doubting that I'd be able to come back. That was the main fire, the fuel to my fire. Being able to work as hard as I could to come back even better, not come back the same player. I'm still progressing right now to come back even better skill-wise and being able to implement my new skills in the upcoming NBA season.

When you're working your way back and you have little milestones, like the first time you dunk or the first time you can play with contact, how much do those little moments mean?

Oh, man. Oh my God, those moments are special. At one point, not being able to walk, and then you get to the point where you're able to walk, you're able to jog, then you're running and jumping. I remember the first time I dunked off my left foot, that was the most joy I had since before I got hurt. That's when I knew I really was making a lot of progress. The first few months of my rehab, I was scared to even lightly jump off my left leg. After five months, I started lightly dunking off of it. Those are the things that keep your spirit up and keep your work ethic going, keep you motivated, seeing improvement week after week.

Nerlens Noel, watching and waiting.  (USATSI)
Nerlens Noel, watching and waiting. (USATSI)

Is it important to you now that you've been through it to talk to other guys if they go down with that same injury?

Oh yeah, yeah. Definitely, definitely. With all the support and love, certain guys, especially Rajon Rondo -- he was definitely the biggest helper through this whole process, he actually gave me his phone number and told me I could hit him up whenever about it. Being from Boston, watching him growing up, and he went through it and he came back as strong as possible, actually before me, so it gave me a lot of confidence, having his good faith.

Is that kind of crazy, being a Celtics fan growing up, to get to know him on a personal level?

Yeah, definitely. That's definitely what made it even more of a thrill. Being able to interact with Rondo and get good advice from him, 'cause he's more of a veteran point guard now in this league, gone through so much with the Big 3, he's a world champion, he's a player who's very mature in this league now. So definitely, it was crazy. I took a lot from him.

You said part of what motivated you was people doubting you could get back. Going into the season, a lot of people are saying Jabari Parker will win Rookie of the Year. Do you feel like, after last year, you're being slept on a little bit?

There's been a lot of doubters. I've just really been working as hard as I can to be able to prove myself as a young player in this league that can contribute sooner than later. It is what it is, with what's being said now. I understand that I wasn't drafted in this draft class, so I won't be talked about now, but it's fine. I'm just going to go into this season with the mindset of contributing to my team and establishing myself.

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