HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Imagine all those staunch Sixers fans falling for a skinny Boston kid raised four miles from the enemy Celtics’ home court.
Get ready, Philly, here comes Nerlens Noel.
Maybe a love affair rising from the failed ashes of Andrew Bynum isn’t so far-fetched. After all, Noel’s outdated box-top hair-do is inspired by his fave entertainer, Philadelphia’s own Will Smith from his days as the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”.
“Everything’s for a reason,” the 76ers rookie center told NBA.com last week, referring to the ACL tear in his left knee that derailed his near-certain path to becoming the No. 1 pick.
“I definitely feel the injury is a blessing in disguise, and I feel that Philly is perfect as to my style, and definitely my playing style. I’m just always playing hard, working for everything and, of course, the city of Philadelphia itself having the die-hard fans they do and just being a blue-collar city.”
When the home fans will get their first look at the one-year Kentucky wonder remains uncertain.
Noel’s relentless recovery is ongoing. The devastating injury occurred on Feb. 12 in just his 24th collegiate game, the result of a hustle play the Wildcats’ center didn’t have to attack. He could have surrendered the breakaway layup against against rival Florida. He sprinted, closed the gap, leaped and swatted the ball away from behind. His 106th block had him on pace to threaten 2012 No. 1 pick Anthony Davis‘ school-record from the season before. Noel crashed to the floor and didn’t get up.
More than four months later at the NBA Draft, Noel waited. He slid from No. 1 to No. 6.
“I don’t regret making that play,” Noel said. “I definitely wanted to put my team in the best position to win and I’m not mad at myself for making that play. That’s just who I am.”
Since undergoing surgery on March 12, and up until just last week, the 19-year-old Noel slept, ate and rehabbed in Birmingham, Ala., punching work-week-like hours to rebuild his knee under the supervision of renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews and esteemed physical therapist Kevin Wilk. He’s finally seeing evidence of all that hard work.
“I feel great. I’m really starting to feel like my old self, being able to have my explosiveness. But I’m definitely being careful with it,” Noel said. “From Day 1, every time I was in rehab, the last few reps, I would just think how bad I want to get on the court because of how much I want to prove to myself that I can get back and be the player I want to be.”
NBA training camps open in about two weeks, but it will still take time before Noel can get down to serious preparations with Philly. He began with baby steps back on the court about two months ago, but contact team drills will be off limits, and a debut date is not yet being discussed, at least not publicly. He has always hoped to play by Christmas.
“I want to be 100 percent confident not only physically, but mentally coming back from it,” Noel said.
He’s only now getting to know the city, having moved to Philadelphia about 10 days ago. He dropped off some boxes there, then he traveled to Lexington to attend a Wildcats alumni game and then to Los Angeles for a Reebok photo shoot, where he revealed the company will encourage his retro “Fresh Prince” fashion sense. Moving to Philly earlier in the summer wasn’t really an option. He and the Sixers’ No. 11 pick, Michael Carter-Williams, remain the only first-round picks yet to sign their rookie contracts.
Salaries for first-round picks are slotted, so there’s no contract dispute here. The bottomed-out, 76ers, now under the guidance of general manager Sam Hinkie, are conserving cap space as they slowly fill out the roster. Then they’ll ink their draft picks. Unsigned players are prohibited from using team facilities and working with training and coaching staffs.
“It’s not too disappointing. I’m definitely working as much as I can and staying focused. That will come,” Noel said. “They’re making strategic moves right now so I definitely understand, but that’s not stopping me from rehabbing and getting back to where I want to be.”
Hinkie has a vision of where that one day will be. He traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans to make Noel the centerpiece of his rebuild. Listed at 6-foot-10 at Kentucky, Noel measured 6-foot-11 3/4 with shoes at the Draft Combine in May. His several-inches-high flat-top reminds of the classic line uttered by the late Chick Hearn in the movie “Fletch:” He’s actually 6-5, with the afro 6-9.” Noel might actually top 7-foot.
His hair even has its own Twitter account (@NoelsFlatTop). Among its more than 2,700 followers is Noel, who doesn’t know who started the account when he was a top recruit.
Noel’s height, with or without the flat-top, is of lesser concern than filling out his long slender frame that’s equipped with a 7-foot-4 wing span. Noel weighed 216 pounds as a freshman and dropped to 206 post-surgery, a weight that could never survive in the NBA trenches. He’s up to 221 and wants to get close to 230 by the time he plays in an NBA game.
As he gets older, he knows he’ll have to continually get stronger to bang with the East’s big boys such as the Pacers’ 7-foot-2, 280-pound center Roy Hibbbert. Noel said he’s already enlisted Hibbert, who has his own array of old-school post moves, to aid his low-post development. That is an aspect of Noel’s game that barely exists at the moment, and some question if it ever will.
Noel averaged 10.5 ppg at Kentucky mostly off dunks, but he said he’s capable of becoming a steady offensive weapon in the NBA.
“Especially with my work ethic and my focus, I’ll be able to do that,” Noel said. “The things he teaches me, mix it with my mobility, add a little flavor to it, I can develop an offensive game.”
First things first, and that’s regaining full strength in his knee. But don’t worry Philly, the Boston kid is on his way.