During his ACL rehab last season, the Sixers did their best to keep Nerlens Noel out of the spotlight. There was the succinct, intermittent recovery updates, occasionally from the big man himself, but most of the time Philadelphia hid Noel away. But with the 2014-15 season a full go (and no incoming first-round picks to totally steal the spotlight, save an Embiid tweet or two), plus a stellar Summer League showing, there was no chance they could keep him away any longer.
Noel sat down with James Hebert of CBSSports.com for a fantastic and lengthy Q&A session. A couple responses caught my eye.
Now that you've gotten a chance to play with some of the guys that your team acquired on draft night -- not all of them -- do you see what the plan is, do you start thinking about how good these guys are going to be in a couple of years?
Yeah, definitely. Even since I've gotten drafted, being around these guys and them really giving me the talks about becoming a professional, I have. Seeing all these guys, especially the guys we've drafted, I've begun to see what they actually can become. Looking at it in that sense, seeing K.J. [McDaniels], he's a 6-5 wingman that's an aggressive defender that likes to block shots. And that's what we're going to be built off of: a defensive team that's long. Especially with Jerami [Grant], those guys I think can be great defensive players down the road in this league. They're going to be young in this league, but they're definitely going to grow, just like I am and everybody else that's on our team that's 20, 21 years old. I think we're really in a great position to be one of the best defensive teams in this league in the years to come and definitely contending soon.
If management hasn't made it clear, it's certainly become evident to the players: this team will be built on defense. This also seems to play into the mindset of the front office in regards to building talent. Hinkie and the rest of his personnel feel that offensive prowess is acquirable over time, but ability to play strong defense is much more of a natural, less coachable skill. You can teach K.J. McDaniels how to improve his three point shooting percentage, but you can't teach instinct when he comes over from the weak side and makes a block, as he'll do plenty of this year. Same goes for Noel. You can work on building his free throw shooting, but becoming a dominant shot blocker isn't the easiest skill to teach.
You've said down the road you and Joel Embiid will be dominant. It's a long way away, but how much are you looking forward to getting out there and competing with him?
I think about it nearly every day. I imagine a lot about what we can be. I think we're in such a great position, a great point guard in Michael Carter [Williams], such a long point guard that can be able to create. Me and him down there, defensively, I think that's already a known thing with great potential. And I think offensively something that's slept on as well, Jo being as big as he is, he's going to take a lot of size down there. And I think especially, simply off my quickness and developing everything I'm going to need to develop in the next couple of years, with my quickness and his size and great IQ of basketball, I think we have a great chance to be real dominant on both ends of the court.
Certainly I don't think people will be sleeping on Embiid on the low block; with his size and touch around the rim he is going to command double teams. Noel needs to make sure those defenses will pay when the post defenders are otherwise occupied. Despite his outside shooting abilities, not playing Joel with his back to the basket would not allow him to play to his full potential. Noel being forced into the high post isn't necessarily an issue, despite that atrocity he still calls a jumper. He is going to need to learn to slash in from the foul line, and really move off ball if that front court pairing is going to work. His handles aren't at a place where he can take a defender off the dribble (his post moves looked real forced in Summer League), so slashing to the hoop and making backdoor cuts are real vital. It'll take a while, but he definitely does have the basketball sense to pick this stuff up.
After the draft you said you you were going to make those five teams pay. Are you still using that as motivation, are you going to circle those games on the calendar?
Over this last year, it's been such a long year and I've come to a point where it's not a revenge thing. Those teams did what's best for their organizations, and it's nothing like that. I think it helped fuel me through the whole rehab process and it helped motivate me. I'm back now and every game night on the calendar's circled.
That last line just makes me giggle. Somebody should put that on a t-shirt.
You said part of what motivated you was people doubting you could get back. Going into the season, a lot of people are saying Jabari Parker will win Rookie of the Year. Do you feel like, after last year, you're being slept on a little bit?
There's been a lot of doubters. I've just really been working as hard as I can to be able to prove myself as a young player in this league that can contribute sooner than later. It is what it is, with what's being said now. I understand that I wasn't drafted in this draft class, so I won't be talked about now, but it's fine. I'm just going to go into this season with the mindset of contributing to my team and establishing myself.
I genuinely think Noel could surprise some and give Jabari a run for his money, but as a raw and maturing big man it's not as easy to rack up the stats like Parker might be able to. Frankly, it isn't about putting up numbers for him this year either. The Sixers are adjusting him to a new position, and the only thing you can ask for is solid progression throughout the season. The numbers will come eventually, but in what will be a stress free teaching season, there is more important things than the hardware. Besides, he can go admire MCW's if he'd like to.
The rest of the Q&A is great, and I highly suggest checking it out. After reading it, it's hard not to get excited about what Noel can do this year, and many more years going forward.