Nerlens Noel’s Dream Season@sublime50illustrations

Nerlens Noel’s Dream Season

Why he's had the time of his career with the Thunder

Nerlens Noel isn’t supposed to be here.

He went from being the short kid who always got picked last in pickup basketball, to the number one player in the country while at the Tilton School, to suffering a career-altering injury while a top pro prospect in college, to playing for three different NBA teams throughout his seven year career.

Only the mentally strong can get through those ups and downs. But Noel did it in stride. Now, the 6-foot-10 center has found solace as a member of a team he almost didn’t even re-sign with: the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Oh it’s amazing man, this is pure basketball,” Noel said in a postgame interview after a February win over the Spurs. “This is probably my funnest year in basketball in my seven years in the league and I’m not taking it for granted.”

But why– after all of these triumphs and hardships– did this harmony come about in OKC?

To answer this question, let’s return to Noel’s childhood.

Picked last

Noel started out as a small fish in an enormous ocean.

In the Noel house, sports were everything. His siblings all have very impressive athletic resumes. His oldest brother, Jim, was a defensive back at Boston College and is currently a scout for the Cleveland Browns. His sister Nashdah? Currently a women’s basketball player at Texas A&M International University. His other brother, Rodman, was a defensive back at North Carolina State University. 

With all of these athletic minds–and bodies–under one roof, there’s bound to be a lot of competition. This competition led Nerlens, who didn’t hit his growth spurt until later in childhood, to be the odd man out.

“We were just always so competitive growing up,” Rodman said. “We used to go down to the park where we would just play pickup three-on-three or five-on-five pickup. Nobody would ever pick Nerlens.”

This was Noel’s first shortcoming in basketball– but it didn’t last long. As time went on, something changed. Noel’s height and maturity levels skyrocketed, leading him to be a better player and person.

“As soon as he hit that growth spurt, he was always one of the first picks,” Rodman said. “His development and his growth spurt and his maturity helped him leapfrog everybody else.”

This growth didn’t just help him in pickup basketball, however. Noel would soon use his newfound strengths to become one of the best young basketball players in the country.

To the top

Noel’s high school days taught him how to handle the national stage. He was playing against future NBA players, was recognized as the best shot blocker of his generation and was even on the same AAU team as future Philadelphia 76ers teammate: Michael Carter-Williams.

In lieu of all this attention, one thing remained constant: Noel’s humility. Carter-Williams said that even with Noel’s dominance on the court, he’ll always remember him for his personality off of it.

“We played AAU together in high school so we have so many times growing up together and traveling,” Carter-Williams said. “Our AAU trips were definitely the funner times that we’ve had… Nerlens is a funny dude; he likes to joke. He’s a cool dude, he’s good company–he enjoys having a good time and just being a good person.”

John Calipari Nerlens Noel

This off-court composure was seen by many of Noel’s closest mentors, especially his high school coach at Tilton School, Marcus O’Neill.

“I think there (were) at least eight or nine guys that ended up playing in the NBA in that game,” said O’Neill, recalling a nationally televised game against Tilton’s in-state rival, Brewster Academy, in 2012.

Even in defeat, Noel stole the show. He was the game’s leading scorer and elevated his performance and personality to a new level that night. Afterward, he didn’t want to make the event all about himself. This was the moment O’Neill knew that Noel would become a successful NBA player. 

“Nerlens would let the game come to him,” O’Neill said. “He was not a selfish high school player. We had some other guys that could score the ball, that liked scoring the ball a lot more than him. It was just sort of a slug fest, and Nerlens was our leading scorer in that game. He lifted his game to another level…that was the moment like, ‘Oh, this is the No. 1 player in the country.’ He didn’t always have to be that for us, nor did he ever feel like he had to show that off.”

Although this humility stayed present, Noel couldn’t hide from the spotlight. He was considered the No. 1 player on almost every recruiting website, hailed as one of the best Boston-area prospects since Patrick Ewing. He had offers from top programs such as Syracuse, North Carolina, Georgetown and Kentucky. 

With all of these schools wanting his services, Noel had a tough choice. He went on national television and shaved the decision into his signature high top fade haircut: an intertwined “UK” logo. Attending the University of Kentucky would change his life forever, but not in the way he might have expected.

The college crash

In terms of basketball, choosing Kentucky was one of the best decisions Noel could have made. 

The Wildcats had just won a national championship with a system that revolved around center Anthony Davis. They had the best national recruiting class according to Rivals, and coach John Calipari was eager to raise more banners.

Noel shared that eagerness, and it showed in his play. On many occasions, Noel would put on defensive performances that took his team to new heights. This was especially evident in a late January road game against Ole Miss.

“My favorite story about Nerlens has to be [that game],” Calipari said. “At the time, we’re an NCAA Tournament team in my mind, playing against a really good Ole Miss team. It wasn’t a game we had to have, but if you listened to the media, it was big. Whatever the circumstances may have been, Nerlens absolutely dominated the game. He blocked everything in sight. I think he ended up with 12 blocks, which is a school record.”

“Remember, we had Anthony Davis the year before and even he never blocked that many,” Calipari continued. “But what I remember the most is that he did most of that late in the game with four fouls. Ole Miss was trying to go right at him and get him out of the game and he never backed down. He won us that game. I still believe to this day that if he doesn’t get hurt a couple weeks later, we make the NCAA Tournament and are one of those teams that has a chance [at the title]. When we lost him, it completely changed our team.”

That chance didn’t come.

Two weeks after the Ole Miss game, Noel and the No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats were playing against Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators. The Gators were the No. 7 team in the country and a win versus UK would add another impressive victory to their resume. 

For Noel–at the time, projected as the top pick in the 2013 NBA draft– this game was a personal challenge. With 8:04 remaining in the second half, however, things weren’t going the way he thought. His team was down 12 and all their energy was seemingly lost. Noel tried to swing the momentum with his shot blocking ability. 

After a Kentucky turnover, Noel chased Florida’s Mike Rosario down the court in transition. Rosario knew he was in trouble; Noel was averaging 4.4 blocks per game and could outrun even the fastest players in the country. Rosario went up for a layup and Noel went up with him for the swat.

The block would send shockwaves throughout college basketball. Noel collapsed after colliding with Rosario at the rim and was later revealed to have torn the ACL in his left knee. He was sidelined for the rest of the season.

Rosario, like most people in the college basketball world, was heartbroken to see the injury, especially since he was directly involved in the play. The rest of that day was hard for the young Florida guard, but he knew something else was in store for Noel.

“I was hoping he was okay because we never want to see something like that happen, especially to a really great player,” Rosario said. “I prayed for him after the game because I knew it was a serious injury. I prayed that he (would come back) stronger, better than ever. I believed God’s plan for Noel was still set for the NBA.” 

Noel believed in his path, too. He knew the recovery process would be long and grueling, but he was determined to accomplish his dream and play for an NBA team as soon as possible. Noel declared for the NBA draft on April 15, 2013, thus starting his NBA process–literally. 

Entering The Process

Even with a crushing injury, Noel was too good of a prospect to pass up. Most analysts agreed he was going to be the first pick and as a result, the draft coverage focused all its attention on Noel.

It focused on him too much.

The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett with the first pick that year (which is still very head-scratching) and the cinematography of the broadcast would set the tone for Noel’s draft night. A few seconds after commissioner David Stern announced Bennett’s name–and after Bill Simmons’ famous “woah!”–the ESPN cameras showed a somber Noel for an extended moment. 

Expecting to go No. 1 overall,  Noel felt snubbed.

via Thunder

He would eventually fall all the way to the New Orleans Pelicans, who selected him with the sixth pick and subsequently traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson. Noel’s melancholy continued to play on camera. But since the damage was already done, the best answer from Noel was to succeed in the NBA. His brother recalled how Nerlens was feeling that day.

“Going number six to Philly, he was excited to be picked,” Rodman said. “Being able to play in the NBA was one of his dreams growing up…Just being blessed to play was the main thing for him.”

However, it would take some time before Noel actually played an NBA minute. The recovery process from his knee surgery unexpectedly sidelined Noel for his entire first professional season. He didn’t play until the 2014 summer league. Noel didn’t play poorly in Philadelphia, but because of the injury, he definitely wasn’t meeting the sky-high expectations. 

To many, it seemed like 76ers wanted this.

Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie set forth a rebuilding “process” in which he seemingly traded all short-term competitiveness for long-term success. Nerlens was at the center of this movement. The initial trade of Jrue Holiday for Noel was strange: Noel was riddled with injury and Holiday was the budding star on some moderately successful Philadelphia playoff teams. Sure, Noel had potential, but the trade made evident that Philadelphia was exclusively trying to collect young players and lay a foundation for the future.

But using Noel as a cornerstone didn’t work. In the three seasons he was on the active roster the 76ers only won 56 games, not the fault of Noel. The team was far from contending, attempting solely to stockpile young talent and build a future beast. There was trial and error in this, though. 

One of the more glaring errors was Noel’s placement in the process. He just wasn’t fitting in on these consistently bad Sixers teams. This caused the team to eventually move on with the process, without Noel. They did this by essentially starting over the same way each time. In the two years immediately after drafting Noel, Philadelphia selected two more bright young centers with injury issues: Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. 

Noel was done playing up north. 

Despite playing in a poor situation, Noel made the most of it. He averaged 9.9 ppg, 1.4 bpg and 7.1 rpg in his three seasons with the 76ers. 

“Playing in Philly, they had their ups and downs but he could never really get settled,” Rodman Noel said. “It was just a lot of struggle as a team and as an organization. But he had the mindset of just getting better every day he stepped on the court and playing hard because he was playing for himself, his family, the fans. So he just put all that behind him and went out there and played hard every night.”

Noel was traded from the 76ers to the Dallas Mavericks on February 23, 2017, ending his contribution to Philadelphia’s unorthodox plan. In the end, playing for the Sixers was a way for Nerlens to learn how to attack adversity–which is something he’d need to know for his time in Dallas.

Dog days in Dallas

Noel had been tested before, but no test had come close to the one he faced in Dallas.  

“Dallas… that one was probably the hardest spot he’s been in,” his brother, Rodman, said. “I guess there’s just some things behind closed doors that you just really don’t know. I thought he played pretty good in Dallas, but I guess him and the coaches weren’t really on the same page, I assume. And things just didn’t work out the way (they) should have.”

Noel averaged a career low 6.5 ppg, 0.9 bpg and 6.2 rpg, but it’s what happened off the court that tells the full story.

In his two seasons with the Mavericks, Noel dealt with injuries, system differences and limited playing time. A lot of it was self inflicted–and Noel would eventually grow from it–but it was still worrisome at the time. 

In his first season in Dallas, Noel actually proved to be a good fit. He was a viable backup center option with a combination of great length and elusive rebounding abilities. It seemed like he was improving and would secure a great contract in the offseason. And he could have.

According to his former agent, Happy Walters, Noel turned down, a 4 year, $70 million contract from Dallas after the 2016-17 season. Noel instead took the qualifying offer for a 1-year, $4.1 million deal in an attempt to have a “prove it” season and gain better offers the following offseason. It was a gamble, but Noel thought he was up to the task.

Like many gambles in life, this one didn’t work.

He struggled in his second season in Dallas. His playstyle wasn’t meshing as well with coach Rick Carlisle’s system and a combination of injuries and off-court concerns led to disagreements throughout the 2017-18 campaign.

This was particularly noticeable after a November game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Noel played a season-low six minutes, leaving some reporters to question what happened to the player who had fit in so well before. “Minutes are earned,” Carlisle said after that game. Noel’s spotlight was getting dimmer and his chances to prove his worth were thinning.

Things got even worse.

A month later, Noel hadn’t played the entire first half against the Clippers, but decided he needed some energy. His solution was to get some additional calories in during the break. So, Noel went to the media room, grabbed a hot dog and went back as if nothing happened.

It became a much bigger deal than that.

Noel wasn’t playing a lot to begin with, but now he was going to get even less of a chance. He stayed on the bench for the second half before Carlisle remarked after the game, “I hear the hot dogs are very good here.” Noel soon solidified his spot out of the lineup completely. He injured his thumb just days following the hot dog incident and was out until February. 

While it seems like things couldn’t possibly get worse from there, they did.  Noel came back from the injury in February with limited playing time and continued struggles with Carlisle’s system. Mavericks assistant coach Darrell Armstrong said this injury impacted Noel’s chemistry with the team. 

“When you have an injury that puts you out for a while, sometimes it’s hard to get back in the chemistry of a rotation,” Armstrong said. “So he was off and on with that.”

Then, in April, Noel was suspended for five games without pay for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. This was rock bottom. The season was winding down, the Mavericks weren’t even close to a playoff spot and the 23-year-old Noel, who was once seen as a dominant force, was now at an even lower point than when he was heaped on the ground with a torn ACL. 

But, much like the growth spurt that turned him into a pick-up legend as a kid, Noel recovered emphatically–and he only had to move three hours away to do so.

Thunderous triumph

On the fateful day of Noel’s ACL tear in college, a future mentor was watching him very closely–but no one knew it at the time.

After Noel chased down Mike Rosario’s layup and collapsed in agony, Florida’s Billy Donovan was watching with concern. Florida had game planned around Noel to try and limit his dominance. Years later, Donovan is coaching in the NBA, game planning for Noel in a much different way.

Noel signed with Donovan’s Thunder in July 2018, a move that Rosario says was a perfect match. The former Gator describes Donovan as a “man of God who absolutely wants the best for you” both on and off the court.

As someone close to Noel’s literal and proverbial fall in college, Rosario has enjoyed his professional rise from a distance. “I’m sure the process was a little tough for (Noel) both mentally and physically,” Rosario said. “He battled and overcame. That’s why he is where he is today.”

“God places you where you really need to be, and gave him coach Billy Donovan,” Rosario said, citing the opportunity Noel has been given by the coach that links the two players. “(Donovan) loves hard-nose players, and Noel is one.”

Rosario is right; the match has worked incredibly well. Noel has been with the Thunder for two seasons now and is having more success–and fun–than he’s ever had in the NBA.

Basketball wise, the fit just makes sense. He works well in the Thunder’s rotation as a backup center. He’s a defensive force against multiple positions, an instinctual rebounder, and has great athletic ability to thrive in Donovan’s spread pick-and-roll offense.

Was this journey the one Noel expected on draft night? Probably not. But the way it transpired allowed for one of the great comeback stories in the league. Oklahoma City has turned into an all-around fresh start for him, and he’s creating something special with the opportunity.

Earned, not given

Noel’s ferocity in the face of hardships is what sets him apart. He could have easily coasted along after his rocky tenure in Dallas, but that wouldn’t have been true to his identity. Noel wanted to prove that he could push through once more.

His refusal to tap the brakes is clear on tape. Last season he had yet another scary fall, falling lifeless to the floor after an elbow to the head left him concussed and unconscious. Just three games after being carted to the lockerroom on a stretcher, Noel returned to the court. This season, he endured another shot to the face, and missed only one game to undergo surgery for his fractured cheek bone.

This mentality has many people from his journey rooting for him.

Noel’s AAU and Sixers days saw him work hard–and also goof around–with Michael Carter-Williams. Carter-Williams said he’s ecstatic to see Noel thrive on this Thunder team. 

“I’m really happy for him,” Carter-Williams said. “He’s having a great year. Especially [considering] everything he’s been through since he’s gotten in the league. You can tell he’s out there having fun, playing hard. He’s got a good role on their team; I can tell they like him over there. He’s just excelling at his job.”

Noel went from a college star in the limelight to having to recover from a terrible injury. John Calipari noted that he’s proud of Noel’s persistence.

“What I’m most excited about is that Nerlens is comfortable with who he is and has carved himself a role in a tough league. Look, the league that Nerlens entered back in 2013 is not the same league that it is now. The game has gone small and everyone can shoot, but Nerlens has said, ‘This is who I am. I can block shots, I can rebound, I can defend like heck,’ and it’s been a perfect fit for the Thunder,” Calipari said. “I’m just so happy that he’s embraced those parts of the game which he always had, because it means he’s going to have a long career in that league. He’s top-20 in the league in player efficiency, one of the best shot blockers in the league and can defend four, if not five positions. I’m happy for him.”

Even in Dallas, a place that seemingly saw the low-point of Noel’s career, there are still some, like Mavericks power forward Dwight Powell, who are huge Noel fans.

“The time I got to spend with Nerlens while he was here was great. He’s a great teammate and definitely a positive energy in the locker room,” Powell said. “I’m excited to see him grow and do some of the things the guys who have practiced with him and trained with him and played with him know he’s capable of doing. To see the things that he is bringing to that team and contribute in that winning culture is no surprise, and I’m excited for him.”

Noel’s adaptability and perseverance has helped guide him from the lowest points to the highest peaks. It’s a gift that not many people have, but one that Noel uses to near perfection.

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