Overcoming the adversity of injury is the common theme of our Road to Recovery series. He just turned 20 years old this past April, but Sixers center Nerlens Noel had to deal with injury misfortune before ever stepping foot onto the NBA hardwood after a torn ACL during his freshman season at Kentucky robbed him of his rookie campaign.
Noel never got down on himself and has embraced the city of Philadelphia as his new home. He’s even helped others recover from hard times in his brief stint as a member of the Philly community while going through his own recovery process.
A short time ago, a struggling waitress in an uncrowded restaurant had no idea who Noel was but became talkative in order to pass the time during a slow night shift. Through their interaction, the waitress expressed how she was working two jobs to put herself through school. She told Noel she always wanted to go to a Backstreet Boys concert and meet the formerly popular boy band.
Afterwards, Noel worked with Live Nation and the Backstreet Boys to arrange for the waitress to achieve that dream. He organized a driver to take her to an upcoming show in the area, and armed her with concert tickets coupled with meet-and-greet passes for her favorite boy band.
Noel is only 20 years-old but understands his recent plight isn’t the worst thing in a sometimes very cruel world. Helping others sometimes helps with whatever may be ailing you at the time. The man who rocks one of the meanest high-top fades today talked with us about his road to recovery as he embarks on his second year in the league, but the first in which he will actually be able to take the court.
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Dime: I bet the the last year and half has been a whirlwind for you. Walk me through the draft process last year. Obviously you couldn’t work out but how did you feel your meetings with teams went?
Nerlens Noel: It went well I felt. I think I met with five teams last year. It was a different type of process being injured but I thought it went well. But I am very glad where I ended up in the city of Philadelphia.
Dime: You were acquired and traded on draft night after slipping a bit [Noel was the preceived No. 1 heading into the Draft], so you were indoctrinated into the business of the NBA pretty early. Did that process make you jaded or upset at all?
NN: No not at all. Maybe a chip on the shoulder type thing for slipping but the trade thing — that was all beforehand. It was premeditated so that doesn’t really speak to anything. I was prepared for it coming off the injury and I was told of the possibility where I could end up. It all turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Dime: So clearly the organization is still taking precautions with you, but are you physically at 100 prcent or is there anything you are still trying to strengthen?
NN: Nah, I am 100percent good. I am 18 months post-op so I am well over 100 percent. I’m feeling great, continuing to strengthen every part of my body and put on the size I need to so I can sustain a long NBA season.
Dime: Last year Coach [Brett] Brown made some interesting comments about you reconstructing your game — particularly your jump shot. Did you agree with his assessment? What did you think when you heard what he said?
NN: Yeah I definitely agreed with that. This past year with not playing we worked on my shot after shoot around and before games…Especially with Coach Brown, the head coach, working with me hand in hand that says a lot. We definitely put a lot of work in. You know my first game back (at Orlando Summer League) I shot 7-7 from the free throw line and I thought that was payment for all the work I had been putting in. We are going to continue to critique it and stick to the fundamentals. I can continue to build my jump shot and be consistent with it.
Dime: Would you say that [his jump shot] is the most improved aspect of your game from when you left college?
NN: Yeah I would say so, but maybe just my skill-set overall and being able to be seen as a threat offensively. Just being able to score and put the ball in the bucket — that’s just one step closer to bringing my game to a more complete level. Catching my offense up to my defense, you know once I am able to do that, I will have a pretty good overall game.
Dime: Philly sat you out the entire season and the team really struggled with your absence. Did you feel that you could have come back at any point last year? Was it burning you up to watch the team lose?
NN: Yeah it definitely was burning me to watch my team lose. Especially on the losing streak of 26 games, you know it was tough. I just had to stay positive and focused and wait for my time. And towards the end of the year around March or April I felt really good. I felt I was able to go but I sat down with my GM, Sam [Hinkie], and everybody on the coaching staff and we really thought it was the best thing I didn’t come back. But I thought it all went well and for the best interest of me.
Dime: How hard is it to build a rapport with the team when you aren’t able to contribute on the floor? Did you find it to difficult to connect with the guys on the roster at all?
NN: Yeah, it was definitely a little harder and it was more pressed to connect. But I think I’m a friendly guy and regardless of if I’m playing or not I will always get along with the guys. But it was just tough not having that synergy or that feeling that you have when someone throws you that alley-oop and you dunk it in game. I think it should be a great year to build on all of that. We waited it out and I think down the road it will only make us closer as teammates.
Dime: What was the hardest part of the rehab process for you? Was there anything that made you wonder how you would get through it?
NN: Coming to Wells Fargo or the practice facility and knowing that you can’t play basketball even though you are coming to a basketball practice. You have to really put that in the back of your head and just focus on lifting weights and rehabbing the right way to come back. I think that was the hardest part. Coming into such a basketball environment for a game you love and not being able to play.
Dime: Who were some of the people around you that you leaned on while you rehabbed to help you get through it all?
NN: You know I really depended on myself because I knew if I willed myself through this that there wouldn’t be anything that could really stop me. But I had great trainers like Kevin Wilk. I think he was the biggest part of it even though I’ve stopped working out with him. I lived in Birmingham, Alabama all last summer rehabbing with him and he is partners with [renowned knee specialist] Dr. James Andrews. He was definitely one of my biggest motivators through this whole process though.
Dime: The team drafted another big who might miss significant time during his rookie year in Joel Embiid. Have you reached out to him having gone through a similar process? What did you say?
NN: We’ve definitely spoken briefly over text. I am waiting for him to get down here so we can get to know each other personally and start building that relationship — that companionship we are going to need for the future going on down the road, especially as two big men.
Dime: Well thankfully you are back on the court, but can you recall a moment in rehab where you felt like you broke through?
NN: Hmm, I wasn’t able to play basketball at this point but probably around the five or six month point [in the rehab process]. I think it was about in the fifth month that I started doing one-legged jumping and I hadn’t jumped off that leg in so long because they told me I couldn’t. Then around that point they started to say I could. Then the first time I dunked off that leg is the point where I started to feel more confident and that I would be back.
Dime: So part of coming all the way back involved finally getting in some game action. Can you describe the feeling you had taking part in Summer League and rate your performance?
NN: I would rate my performance at probably about a C+. I don’t think I showed everything I could have, but I just need to learn from it. I need to be able use that as kind of a first game thing and see what I need to improve on before the season starts. It was good to see what I had and see what I need to work on in these next few months leading up to the season.
Dime: I watched you a bit and I was probably most impressed with your quick hands. You even ripped a couple of guards off the dribble. What is an aspect of your game that people may not realize you possess?
NN: People are surprised by the steals and a couple people have seen that in Summer League but I’d definitely have to say my passing. I’m a willing passer that likes to get teammates involved. I think as my offense continues to grow, especially out of an offensive set, I will be able to create more for my teammates and find them through openings and holes going back door and everything. That continues to be part of my game that shows more and more.
Dime: How will you spend the rest of the summer? Any big man camps, will it be all basketball?
NN: I’m definitely going to be working on my game no matter where I am. I’ll see about the camps maybe later on in the summer but I’m just really focused on working on my body and skill-set.
Dime: Fair enough. People are big on comparisons. Do you pattern your play after anybody?
NN: Nah, I don’t see any comparisons.
Dime: Do you feel like you can win rookie of the year? Is that a goal for you to maybe show some of the GMs that passed on you they made a mistake?
NN: It is a goal for me but it isn’t to show anybody anything. It’s more for myself to achieve something coming back from such an injury with so much doubt. It’s just a goal for myself, I’m not trying to show any GMs or anything.
Dime: You are in a unique situation being eligible to win Rookie of the Year but do your teammates still see or treat you as a rookie? Do you think you will have to endure any of the rookie treatment next season?
NN: Nah, nah, nah there is none of that this year. That’s only a first year thing. I’m somewhat of a veteran now, well not really but somewhat. I’ll make sure I look out for our young guys so that they learn their lessons coming into the league. [Laughing]
Dime: When you aren’t practicing or playing how do you spend time away from the game…any interesting hobbies?
NN: When I’m not playing basketball all I really do is play Xbox—you know NBA 2K, Call of Duty and just chill.
Dime: So do you think you are pretty nice on those two games?
NN: Man, I’m probably one of the best around. (Again laughing)
Dime: Anybody in the league that you have played on Xbox who you can talk about?
NN: I really don’t play anybody too often. I did play Tony Wroten a while back I beat him. He knew that was coming. I’m just real low-key, I haven’t played too many guys in the league yet but as time passes there will be more whoopings to come.
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