ORLANDO, Fla. – You’d probably figure that after all the work, all the wait, all the anticipation of finally getting back out onto the court to play a game, the first thing Nerlens Noel would want to do is simply pick up the ball and jam it through the hoop.
So it he did.
It was just 20 seconds into his first summer league game, on his first offensive possession when Noel turned and made his first basket for the 76ers a resounding slam dunk.
“Oh yes, definitely,” Noel said. “It helped the jitters. It set the tone for the game. I was confident.”
He was also ready, active and rather effective playing his first real game in almost 1 1/2 years, following surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. Noel shot 6-for-11 from the field, scored 19 points and made four steals in just over 26 minutes of an 83-77 loss to the Magic.
“It’s very validating,” Noel said. “It’s been 18 months since I was able to play and it felt great today. I didn’t do as much as I wanted to as far as rebounding and being active defensively. That will come through as I build more stamina, able to be more active and it felt good.
“No mental blocks. It’s been 18 months out. I haven’t been thinking about the knee for a long time. I’m definitely going to continue to work to get it stronger, strong as possible.”
Noel moved smoothly around the court, showed off some slick moves around the basket and was not at all reluctant to get down onto the floor for loose balls.
The 6-foot-11 center was the consensus choice for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft until suffering the knee injury on Feb. 12 of his only season playing college ball at Kentucky. His stock dropped on draft night until Noel was chosen No. 6 by New Orleans and promptly traded to Philly for Jrue Holiday.
“I’m a Philadelphia 76er,” Noel said. “I’m not focused on what happened on draft night. I’m just going forward and gonna continue to grow as a player, person and leader for this team. It motivates me for rehab, but I’m here, I’m a 76er and that’s all I’m focused on.”
Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce, who heads up the summer league team, was impressed with the long-awaited debut by Noel.
“One of the scary things with him is he had a couple of steals in the pick and roll coverage,” Pierce said. “That was one of the things I stressed early in the week: How would Nerlens do in the pick and roll coverage?
“He’s got great hands…We want him to be athletic. But we want him to stay disciplined in the scheme. He’s got great timing as a defender and you saw some of that tonight.”
After waiting so long to finally get a glimpse of a player the Sixers believe will be a foundation for the future, the NBA world also saw an impressive array of offensive moves. He was especially impressive on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter. First, he caught the eye of forward Hollis Thompson in transition, took a pass just over mid court and drove through traffic for a nice layup, was fouled and converted the three-point play.
“I’m a little quicker than most big men,” Noel said. “I definitely saw the big man lagging back, so with my first step I was able to get by to my left and and at the end he wasn’t able to wrap me up and I was able to finish the play,” Noel said.
The next time down the floor, Noel scored on a feathery teardrop shot from about eight feet.
“I’ve got a lot of reps on those as well,” he said. “I think that’s gonna be big part of my game as well. I’m just expanding my game.”
That expansion included a perfect 7-for-7 night on free throws, the product of a totally reconstructed shooting stroke. He shot just 52.9 percent from the line at Kentucky and team president Sam Hinkie joked last year that 60 percent would a good goal.
“Yeah, I’m real happy,” Noel said. “But I can’t get too happy. It’s a long road ahead of me and I’ve got to stay focused and keep working to get better and better. It’s no time to celebrate now.”