Prior to a recent road game, Nerlens Noel sat at his locker with his feet propped up on a chair and he couldn’t help but smile when talking about the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2016-17 season. His braces were on full display as he discussed the franchise’s success – and his grin only got bigger when nearby teammates cracked jokes and tried to distract him while he talked to reporters.
After several years of losses and frowns, the Sixers have every right to be happy. Over the last two seasons, the team lost 136 of 164 games. Now, Philadelphia has taken a step forward, making the transition from rebuilding squad to significant competitor. The team is on pace to win more games this season than in the last two campaigns combined, and they’re currently just five and a half games out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. After everything he has experienced in Philly, Noel is thrilled that the team is performing at a high level and clearly moving in the right direction.
“It’s a lot more fun, a lot more enjoyable, and it honestly feels like a whole new culture,” Noel told HoopsHype. “Every guy in here comes into these games knowing we have a chance to play great basketball and win. I think that’s contagious, along with the joy that we’ve been playing with. We’ve been playing the right way too, moving the ball and caring for the team’s success rather than our own. That translates [into wins].”
The experience has also been much more enjoyable for Philadelphia’s fan base, which is known for being extremely passionate. Noel was visibly excited when discussing the atmosphere at this year’s home games. He loves the support that this up-and-coming Philly squad has received and he’s glad that the Sixers are finally able to put a quality product on the court for the paying fans. The Wells Fargo Center has become a hostile environment for opposing teams; it’s no coincidence that 13 of Philadelphia’s 21 wins have come at home.
“That’s something special that the Philly fans bring,” Noel said. “They’re constantly cheering and booing [the opposition]. They bring that grittiness and attitude to the games, which is contagious as well. It gives you a little more [motivation] to play with when they’re so bought-in to the games. Their energy makes you want to go out there and play even better.”
“Like, did you see the DeAndre Jordan air-balls?” Noel added with a smile. “That’s probably when the fans get the craziest, when someone air-balls. They’ll chant ‘air-ball’ so loud and boo the other team. We have some really special fans.”
If the atmosphere is this crazy during the regular season, Noel and his teammates can only imagine how the crowd would react in a playoff series. But Noel is quick to point out that the team still has a lot of work to do in order to make that leap into the East’s Top 8 and become a postseason squad.
“That has been our goal, but we know that we have to focus on bringing along certain aspects of our game,” Noel said of a potential playoff push. “I think we really have to work on some things if we want to keep that as a [realistic] idea. It may take some time, but we are playing hard and playing the right way and we’re getting some more wins now, so anything is possible.”
While Noel is excited about the team’s success and loves the fan base, he’s also willing to discuss the elephant in the room: Philadelphia has a logjam at the center position with Noel, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.
Noel has been outspoken about the situation and, for the first time in his career, he’s not an every-night starter. This season, the 22-year-old has started just seven of 29 contests and he’s averaging a career-low 19.4 minutes per game. Noel admits that the situation is frustrating, he’s trying to focus on the things that he can control.
Head coach Brett Brown recently praised the big men for the way they’ve dealt with trade rumors and remained close despite the competition for minutes. Coach Brown specifically praised Noel for being mature and professional about his decreased role.
“I give amazing credit to a bunch of young and talented good friends, good people,” Brown said of how his frontcourt has handled everything thrown at them this season. “There are rampant, never-to-go-away rumors and questions like, ‘Will you be in the city of Philadelphia tomorrow?’ Stuff like that, it just never goes away. So how do you navigate a locker room like that? [It’s about] how you communicate with the guys, how you keep them up and how they interact amongst each other. They’ve retained their friendships and truly want the best for one another. That’s very admirable and rare, to me, in professional sports.
“Nerlens is a prime example of that in how he deals with [his fluctuating role] and how he interacts with his friend, Jahlil. [Even when] Nerlens’ minutes have been less and less, he’s handled it like a pro. He’s handled it really well. He’s handled it maturely and like a friend.”
And, yes, Noel, Okafor and Embiid are truly close. Behind the scenes, that has made the situation a bit easier for everyone involved. On some teams, the competition and rumors could lead to tension, but that hasn’t been the case in Philadelphia. Each player wants to be on the court and help the team, but they also cheer each other on and genuinely want each other to succeed.
“Me, Jah and Joel are all the same age, and I think that plays a big part in how close we are,” Noel said. “We’re all genuine, and we’re all young men who just want to play well in this league and see each other do well at the same time. We all know that none of [us] asked for this, but we just have to proceed and handle things in the right manner.
“It’s still hard, even to this day, but being mature and professional about it is definitely something that I pride myself on. I know that if I stick with it, things will work out. I just try to do everything the right way and go about things in a respectful, positive manner. That’s been my main focus.”
With that said, Noel admits the sacrifices have been difficult for him as a competitor. Prior to entering the NBA, he has been the star of every team he’s ever played on, so this is certainly an adjustment.
“It’s a different world that I’m living in now,” Noel admitted. “Whether or not it’s something that I’ll get used to… who knows? I’m a really competitive player. But I do take a lot of pride in [how I carry myself]. It’s something that I’ve kind of gotten used to and they’ve sort of figured it out on their end in terms of managing minutes. That’s Coach Brown’s responsibility. He obviously didn’t make the roster, but he’s done a great job of just being as honest and real with us as he can. That’s something that I really respect about him and that has made this process that much easier.”
Then, with a big smile, Noel adds: “Hopefully we can look back on this 15 years from now and just laugh at it. We’ll all have millions of dollars and can just laugh about this.”
While Noel has played more lately due to Embiid’s minor meniscus tear and bone bruise (which has sidelined him for 14 of the Sixers’ last 15 games), it doesn’t change the fact that, when healthy, the Sixers have too many bigs.
While the roster make-up isn’t ideal, one advantage of having three talented centers with unique skill set is that the trio has learned quite a bit from constantly playing against one another.
“We’re all different and bring different things to the table, so going up against each other every day in practice definitely makes us better,” Noel said. “With me, I’m more agile and quick. With them, they have bigger bodies and they have a different style since they’re more back-to-the-basket players. At practice, we’re seeing different things every day and you’re able to look at adding something that they have [in their arsenal] that you might not have in your game. Being able to go up against each other every day, we’ve definitely made gains.”
With that said, Okafor and Noel know that their days with the Sixers could be numbered. Philadelphia’s front office has put both big men on the market, shopping each of them at times. Most recently, Okafor was held out of games and told that trade discussions were taking place between the Sixers’ brass and four teams: the Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets. Philly has yet to make a move, but Noel knows that anything can happen between now and the Feb. 23 trade deadline.
“It’s obviously hard to block out [rumors] in today’s day and age,” Noel said. “Since I was a kid, we’ve had social media platforms, so it’s really not like it was in the old days when you could just go about your business and never have to see it. Now, if you look at your phone, you may see something.
“I think it’s something that I’ve handled well. I’m still here, and I’ve just always tried to have a strong mentality so that I can handle anything that happens. I think I did that with the losing and now with the trade stuff. I just take things day by day, and I worry about myself and how I can continue to get better.”
And make no mistake, Noel has gotten better. While his stats are down due to his decreased playing time, he has made the most of his on-court opportunities. This season, he’s averaging 8.9 points, 5 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1 block in 19.4 minutes. He’s shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 68.3 percent from the free-throw line – both of which are career highs. In his seven starts, he has averaged 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 2 assists and 1.4 blocks while shooting 65.6 percent from the field.
Noel’s per-36-minute stats – 16.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.6 steals and 1.8 steals – are impressive and show that he’s making his presence felt on both ends when he’s on the floor. He is also having the most efficient season of his career, posting a 20.9 PER. Also, consider these stats:
- Noel’s 3.6 steal percentage is currently ranked first in the NBA among all players (tied with Chris Paul).
- His Defensive Box Plus/Minus (3.7) is fifth-best in the NBA behind only Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Lucas Nogueira and Russell Westbrook.
- His 61.1 percent shooting from the field ranks fifth in the NBA, behind only DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Clint Capela and Gobert.
- Noel has the sixth-best block percentage (5 percent), trailing only Nogueira, Myles Turner, Gobert, Anthony Davis and Alex Len.
- His defensive rating (101) ranks sixth in the NBA behind only Andre Drummond, Gobert, Green, Hassan Whiteside and Howard.
Noel’s strongest game of the season was in last month’s win over the LA Clippers, when he posted 19 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals and just 1 turnover while shooting 80 percent from the field and 100 percent from the free-throw line. It’s those head-turning performances that make him an attractive trade target for other teams, while also making one wonder how good Noel can be when he reaches his full potential.
Noel’s ability to wreak havoc on defense has been well-documented. What hasn’t been talked about as much is the strides he has made on offense. Noel feels more comfortable offensively than ever before, while also admitting that he still has plenty of room to grow on that end of the floor.
“I definitely feel like I’ve progressed a great amount offensively,” Noel said. “I feel like my jump shot is something that I can look on to be reliable [and it’ll keep improving] with time and games. My free-throw shooting is up to about 70 percent now after being at about 50 percent in college. I think overall my game has just improved and with the right opportunities to show it, I’ve tried to maximize those opportunities – especially this year. And I’ll only keep improving.”
Even with the offensive improvements, Noel will always consider himself a defensive-minded player.
“I definitely take pride in my defensive abilities first, and make sure that I’m the anchor of the defense whenever I’m on the court,” Noel said. “I also try to be a vocal leader on that end. Growing up in Boston and watching a lot of Kevin Garnett, I really tried to implement those things into my game as early as possible. I’ve seen how that [affects] all of the teammates and gets the defense going, which leads to transition baskets and better offense.”
Noel’s time in Philadelphia has been interesting, to say the least. But no matter what happens, he feels that he has grown as a person and benefited from his time with the Sixers.
“At this point, I know nothing can break me,” Noel said. “I’m able to handle anything that is thrown at me.”
Sixers, Busines, Top, Trade, DeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green, Dwight Howard, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid, Kevin Garnett, Lucas Nogueira, Myles Turner, Nerlens Noel, Rudy Gobert, TJ McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers