LAS VEGAS — Nerlens Noel gets an “A” for perseverance and patience and for somehow maintaining optimism throughout the most physically and psychologically challenging 17-month stretch of his young life. NBA schedules have yet to be released, but there’s roughly 100 days until the Philadelphia 76ers open the 2014-15 season and Noel is counting down every last one them.
The 76ers’ 6-foot-11 center (more like 7-foot-3, seriously, with his trademark flat top now elevating ever higher) sat out all of last season to rehabilitate the left knee he damaged late in his one-and-done campaign at Kentucky. The injury dropped him from the consensus No. 1 pick into Philadelphia’s lap at No. 6. He finally made it back on the floor earlier this month, playing three games at the Orlando Summer League, and he wrapped up an encouraging July tour playing two of five games at the Las Vegas Summer League where paint penetrators were quickly put on notice.
Though still months away, visions of how Opening Night will go down dance in his mind on almost a daily basis.
“It’s going to be something special,” Noel, 20, told NBA.com Friday after watching the Sixers’ final game in Vegas. “I know how passionate those fans are so I really can’t wait to step on the floor.”
Game 1 will be a milestone for sure, but the unanswerable question is how Noel will fare through 82 of them. His conditioning will take time and he acknowledged it “wasn’t great” early in Orlando, but built up as the games came and went. Before the start of Summer League, Noel had not played in an actual game since the night of the injury in February 2013.
“It’s been a process the whole time,” Noel said. “I’ve had to really have patience, not being able to play this past year, and finally being able to play and show what I’ve been working on. I didn’t get to show everything, but I’m going to continue working on my body and be able to come back in the regular season and be better.”
The Boston native will split the rest of the offseason between his hometown and Philly, where he’s stayed since the regular season ended in mid-April to continue working with the team’s coaches and training staff. Noel remains a thin, 228-pound pogo stick, still not strong enough to command the low block offensively, though in four of five games he scored in double figures and overall shot 49 percent (24-for-49).
That side of his game remains raw, even as it pokes through with parts of a multi-dimensional attack — including lefty hooks in the lane, a perimeter jumper that he spent countless pregame workouts with coach Brett Brown reconstructing his release, plus a quick first-step dribble-drive from the elbow. Still his offensive capabilities remain miles behind the type of force he delivers on the defensive end.
In his five summer games, Noel swatted 13 shots and altered dozens more. His quickness to elevate in the paint and meet shots at the rim can be astonishing. He’s so long and nimble that he glides almost effortlessly as a help-side defender. The 76ers, who surrendered more baskets from within five feet last season than only the Los Angeles Lakers, should see a major boost in that category next season.
He also showed he’s going to be difficult to deal with on the boards. In four games, he grabbed at least a half-dozen rebounds. Through it all, Noel said his rebuilt and cautiously monitored knee has passed every test with flying colors.
“I have no problems with it all,” said Noel, who has claimed he can actually jump higher now than before the surgery to repair the torn ACL.
It still likely won’t help the Sixers contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It will be months into the season before Noel will team with No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid, who has his own rehabilitation to endure following foot surgery. It’s a frontline pairing in which optimists crow about the possibilities and pessimists fret about durability.
“I talked to him a few times briefly over texts, he’s a great kid, great personality,” Noel said. “I’m really looking forward to getting on the court with him and really starting that relationship we’re going to need if we are going to be one of the best tandems in the future.”
Rookie of the Year point guard Michael Carter-Williams, a former AAU teammate of Noel’s, returns with veteran and consummate pro Thaddeus Young. From there, the roster remains perilously thin in Year 2 of general manager Sam Hinkie‘s ground-up reconstruction. It’s a plan that again came under scrutiny on Draft night when Hinkie selected the injured Embiid and then Dario Saric at No. 12. While Embiid hopes to play at some point next season, the 6-foot-10 Croatian will play in Turkey.
Philadelphia won just 19 game last season and Noel watched helplessly through a 26-game losing skid. But again, the optimism of youth sees past these facts that could be depressing and believes the program is in good hands and pointed in a positive direction.
“We have a great vision,” Noel said. “Me and Mike [Carter-Williams] are very close, we’ve known each other for years now, from high school playing with each other on the AAU circuit. “I think with me, Joel and Mike, that would be a great three-person core, and then it’s adding pieces that we need. I think Sam is going to make it all happen for us. We have a lot of faith in him and I think we’ll be fine.”
At least now the countdown is really on.