Noel's effort says it all

Posted: July 08, 2014

ORLANDO - There were about 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the opening game Saturday between the Orlando Magic and the Sixers in the Orlando Pro Summer League.

The Sixers trailed by 14 points, and Nerlens Noel, the Sixers' redshirt rookie center who was playing in his first organized game in 18 months, was not happy.

He scowled as he looked up at the scoreboard and implored his team of mostly rookie draft picks and undrafted free agents to pick up the effort.

As a sign that he was practicing what he preached, Noel jumped out to defend Orlando second-year guard Victor Oladipo, a smooth player who finished second to Sixers point guard Michael Carter-Williams for 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Noel slapped at the ball, causing Oladipo to lose his handle. Then Noel dived to the floor to try to secure the ball before it rolled out of bounds.

Noel didn't get the ball, but the effort spoke volumes. The Sixers came up short, but they put on a charge at the end that left the game undecided until the closing moments.

"I don't like to lose," said Noel, who as a University of Kentucky freshman was picked sixth overall in the 2013 draft but missed last season while recovering from a knee injury. "These are new guys and we just came together as a team, but we've grown close in this past week.

"We've worked hard. We've put a lot of work in. I want to win games. You give effort on defense and always try to make stops."

Somewhere sitting amid the throng of NBA talent evaluators packed into the practice gym at the Amway Center, Sixers coach Brett Brown was smiling at Noel's effort.

Some skills necessary to make a great player are not physical. They cannot be improved on through repetition. They simply are part of a player's DNA or they are not.

"He's inherently competitive," Brown said of Noel. "As a coach, you love that. That's my personal red flag. Players either have it or they don't.

"When I look at the draft this year, just for me, the No. 1 thing was always: Do they really compete? Do they love the game? Do they hate losing?"

Brown said he asked those questions of players whom the Sixers interviewed - and to put themselves in his position of building a program. What if the only chance to make it work was to get highly competitive players; what would you ask to find out if they had the competitive fire?

"And then I'd shut up and listen," Brown said.

Brown didn't get to ask those questions of Noel ahead of the 2013 draft because the Sixers had the 11th overall pick, and didn't interview Noel because he was expected to go higher.

But in the time since the Sixers traded Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for the rights to Noel, who had slid from his projected spot of No. 1 overall because of his injury, Brown said he has seen all he needs to know.

"Nerlens just has it," Brown said, reciting stories about how Noel would react to challenges last season when coaches were just working with him on shooting drills. "He just wants to win. That is the single most important thing for me as we try to build our program.

"In the city of Philadelphia, you better have highly competitive people or you are not going anywhere."

Right now, you can only look for snapshots of Noel and what they might mean to his future as a NBA player.

In the grand scheme, that Noel scored 19 points with two rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot in his first game doesn't mean a whole lot more than if he had, say, just four points and no rebounds.

Noel, as anticipated, did not play in yesterday's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder because the safest route is to ease him back into game shape.

Saturday's action was just 26 minutes of hopefully thousands of minutes that the 20-year-old Noel will log in a long NBA career, just one game of hopefully the hundreds he will play at a high level for the Sixers.

There were glimpses of why the Sixers felt it was worth the risk when they traded a young All-Star point guard for the high-ceiling potential of an injured young big man.

Noel's amazing athleticism and quickness for a player his size are obvious. The injury does not appear to have taken anything away.

"No mental blocks," Noel said. "It's been 18 months out. I haven't been thinking about the knee for many months now. I'm definitely going to continue to get it strong, as strong as possible, and continue working.

"I was nervous at the beginning, but I seemed to play a little better when I'm anxious. [The dunk] definitely helped the jitters and set the tone for the game.

"It's very validating. I'm real happy, but I can't get too happy because it's a long road ahead of me."

Breaking down Noel's positives and negatives will be an ongoing process that is just starting this week in Orlando.

Still, if a first impression is what you are looking for, the competitive fire that appears to rage within Noel is a perfect start.

More Sixers: Ronald Roberts showing he has game.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

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