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Why Nerlens Noel Is Drake

Drake circa 2010, to be specific.

Got every rebound, I got every rebound.
Got every rebound, I got every rebound.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ed note: Jason Lipshutz is the editor/curator of the Pop Shop blog and an editor for Follow him on twitter @jasonlipshutz.


"I got enemies, got a lot of enemies/Got a lot of people tryna drain me of this energy," is a lyric by the rapper Aubrey "Drake" Graham. It's a straw man fallacy tossed out by a universally respected, critically beloved music star, on a song, "Energy," that appears on the mixtape, If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, that scored the largest sales week of 2015 in three days' time.

Drake has no real enemies aside from Internet trolls and maybe Diddy, and certainly no one threatening his commercial energy. It didn't always used to be that way, though. Drake has mass appeal now, but five years ago, he was still a promising new voice whose style and pedigree carried a lot of doubts within the hip-hop establishment.

In short, he was Nerlens Noel.

Okay, hold that thought for a second. Let's head back to the summer of 2010, which seems like 12 lifetimes ago for Sixers fans. Remember Jason Kapono? Craig Brackins? Fresh-faced Evan Turner, a promising rookie with a grand smile, playing for just-hired coach Doug Collins?

These were simpler times. That June -- a June in which our guy Nerlens was just 16 years old! -- Drake was supposed to drop his debut album, Thank Me Later, after months of hype, a label bidding war and a pretty convincing debut single in the hook-stuffed sex boast "Best I Ever Had." That song featured Drake capably tossing off high school similes like "You could have my heart, or we could share it like the last slice" and slickly crooning the chorus himself -- the musical equivalent of filling up the stat sheet.

Before Thank Me Later was released, there was a ton of buzz around Drake, who had signed with Lil Wayne's Young Money label in June 2009. His So Far Gone EP sold well thanks in part to "Best I Ever Had," and his appearances on the lovably terrible 2009 Young Money compilation album turned songs like "Every Girl" and "BedRock" into radio staples. Drake was that dude who kept worming himself into music discussions; you would hear his slightly nasally voice at college parties in early 2010 with comparable frequency to Ke$ha's "TiK ToK" or Trey Songz's "Say Aah."

Like I said, simpler times.

Yet when Drake started out, he wasn't really respected too much. After all, he was still the guy from Degrassi: The Next Generation, and if you tried to forget that fact while listening to his music, that uncompromising temptress called the Internet would eventually remind you. The word "soft" was lobbed around a lot. Even if you enjoyed "Best I Ever Had" and found his flow promising, there was no way to guarantee the longevity of a rap artist whose background consisted of starring in over 100 episodes of a Canadian soap opera; no precedent had been set for something like that. Sure, Drake had scored a splashy deal with the backing of Lil Wayne (back then, one of the three biggest rappers alive), but then again, so had scrubs like Gudda Gudda and Jae Millz. What, exactly, was Drake's ceiling?

When Thank Me Later finally was released, the album sold a boatload of copies -- 447,000 in its first week -- and established Drake as a digestible personality capable of blending PG-13 rhymes with ultra-sensitive R&B cuts. The album's two biggest hits, "Over" and "Find Your Love," weren't as ubiquitous as "Best I Ever Had," but were respectable in their chart placements nonetheless. Meanwhile, Thank Me Later was critically praised if a little less than beloved -- in other words, it got that 8.4 on Pitchfork without getting a Best New Music -- while snickers of "soft" and "not a star" continued with howl-worthy lyrics like "I wish I wasn't famous/I wish I was still in school/So that I could have you in my dorm room/I would put it on you... crazy."

One week after Thank Me Later hit No. 1, Eminem's Recovery replaced it at the top of the albums chart with a monstrous 741,000 copies sold; five months after that, Kanye West issued the best album of that year, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. At the end of 2010, Drake was far from an afterthought -- he was a rising star and bankable newcomer, for sure -- but he was also far from elite within hip-hop. He'd lose the best new artist Grammy to Esperanza Spalding, too.

And this is where Nerlens Noel comes in -- not to say that Andrew Wiggins is Esperanza Spalding, but he might be. Noel is currently Drake in Thank Me Later mode: an extremely promising star with surprising durability, but also with loud critics who question whether or not he can ever be a transcendent talent. He's not a household name yet (unless your household loves basketball, and alliteration), but his raw skills allow for boundless hope. His awkward offensive game is the equivalent of the clumsy hashtag rap of Drake's early years ("I can teach you how to speak my language, Rosetta stone," woof), but his formidable defensive presence has a good ear for beats, hooks and collaborators.

Nerlens only has two years left on his rookie deal after this season ends. It's easy to envision the Sixers jettisoning the rim protector for a treasure trove of picks and sell high like they did with Michael Carter-Williams. But every double-double he records, every time he gets closer to making that rookie of the year debate sound legitimate, every time he notches nine blocks in a meaningless game against Indiana and makes me hum "Best I Ever Had," it's easier to foresee a Take Care -- the undisputed classic project -- in his future.

I irrationally loved Thank Me Later when it came out, clumsy hashtag raps and dorm room laments and all, and I still have a certain soft spot for the seven-minute R&B cheese-fest "Shut It Down." But the thing about Drake is that he kept improving by tinkering with his game, eventually sanding off his worst habits to become a heavyweight talent with a laser focus.

You can like 2011's Take Care more than 2013's Nothing Was The Same (I prefer NWTS), or think his new mixtape, If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, lacks the hooks of his proper album. But whatever you think of his specific projects, Drake is just better now. He raps more naturally, and doesn't need big names to prop him up. He's commanding.

This is Nerlens Noel's fate. I know it deep down, because I love him almost as irrationally as I love Drake. He's not like Kendrick Lamar because he'll probably never win an MVP; he's not like Kanye West because he's not as forward-thinking; and he's not Young Thug because his game lacks innovation. But Nerlens is Drake because he can become the most crowd-pleasing and the most meme-able, the force capable of uniting the tired masses under insane blocked shots and long-armed steals. Imagine if Nerlens develops that post game, keeps learning under Brett Brown and figures out how to play alongside Joel Embiid (who's Nicki Minaj in this scenario, of course).

We've seen the flashes. If Nerlens can put it all together, oh my god, oh my god, he's a motherfucking legend.

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