New York Knicks center Nerlens Noel will soon enter the unrestricted free agent market as one of the most coveted centers.
After making $5 million this past season with the Knicks, Noel could double that salary this summer. Noel helped anchor a Knicks defense that ranked 13th in opponent rim field goal percentage last season (63.2 percent) to the best in the league this year (60.5 percent). The Knicks also had a 25-16 record when Noel started and 16-15 when he did not.
With free agency at the start of August nearly upon us, Noel spoke with HoopsHype about his time playing for coach Tom Thibodeau, what he’s looking for in free agency, and a look back at his career thus far, including his time with the 76ers during the “Trust the Process” era.
What was it like playing for NBA Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau?
Noel: It was great playing for coach Thibodeau. He’s an overall great person to be around. He takes his work seriously. Most importantly, he holds guys accountable. On a young team like that, I was able to give my leadership to the team being a veteran. Coach Thibs was right at the top of the helm, gave all his type of experiences, his gritty type of style and attitude to the team. I think it really helped my playing style, especially defensively, to really break out and be as aggressive as I could and switch out onto screens and try to change the game on that side of the ball.
How would you describe your time in New York last season, and what did playing for the Knicks do for your game?
Noel: I would describe my time in New York last year as a successful and great time. I feel like they gave me an opportunity that I seized. Coming into New York, I had a chip on my shoulder. We all know what this team and organization have been through. I definitely wanted to make it a focal point to be a part of something special and grasp the opportunity that was available here. I saw some of the moves they made, and I felt like they weren’t too far off. At the right time, things came together with a guy like Julius (Randle) being a great leader for the team and guys like myself, Alec (Burks), and Reggie (Bullock), the right role players to make up a complete team. I think that’s what that was. I feel like it was a great year and a great team.
Not many people picked the Knicks as a playoff team. What were your expectations coming into the season?
Noel: I’d say it met my expectations. I’m a competitor, and I felt like we could’ve done better even if it didn’t look like that at the beginning of the year. There was a point in the middle of the year where we were creeping on the fourth seed and feeling like we could be a real team and do some things. I think it met expectations, but I want to exceed them as much as possible to show how special that group really was. Guys tried to play the right way. It just didn’t fall in our favor.
Did anything surprise you about coach Thibodeau?
Noel: He was pretty funny and cracked jokes. He knew how to keep the locker room light when he needed to, and he would know how to control and lead a room. I didn’t know that side of his personality. He has a more opened up, laughing jokes side. It’s more than some people would expect. It’s good to see that side of him as well as the business side.
How do you weigh your time in New York when deciding your future with several other teams trying to sign you?
Noel: I’ll weigh it simply off how I can further my career and be best utilized in a system both offensively and defensively, and help that team get to the next step, and myself as well. Collectively, reaching the playoffs. My individual goal, which is more team orientated, is going deeper into the playoffs. I haven’t been to the second round yet, so I want to crack through. Whether it’s a team that has or hasn’t been to the playoffs, I just want to help the team overall with my playing style and wreaking havoc defensively and catching lobs. It’s about finding the right fit. Guard play that can help a big man excel. Small things like that I think will be an ideal fit.
What are you looking for on your free agent checklist?
Noel: Simply just getting to the best situation, so I can continue to show my abilities and continue to play off the momentum I’ve been playing off of from OKC to here now (New York). Obviously, longevity is a thing as well. I’m just locked into playing a high level of basketball and going out there and having fun wherever that is.
You’re entering your prime at 27. What goals do you have for the rest of your career?
Noel: I do feel like I’m one of the best big men defensively in this league. Whether it’s been credited in the past, I think this year has been different. I want to continue that mark on my career to continue to be one of the best defensive players and most versatile, from steals to blocks to doing the little things defensively that actually help you win games. That’ll continuously be on my checklist and be the Defensive Player of the Year, hopefully, before my career ends and to cap it off. I want to continue to get better, play at higher levels, and continue to shoot the ball a little bit. I feel like that’s an aspect of my game I haven’t been able to showcase as much to get that green light. That’s a small aspect of my game that I can show a little bit that can really change some things to help how effective I am on both ends of the court. At the end of the day, I know my strengths, and I’ll always rely on them.
What have you thought of your career so far during your seven seasons with Philly, Dallas, OKC, and New York?
Noel: I’d say my career took some ups and downs and twists and turns, but I feel like my resilience has shown what type of person and player I am and how much I love this game. Coming out of college having my ACL injury in the first year wasn’t always the easiest start before you even play a basketball game in an NBA setting. I feel like I’ve definitely stayed the course and been able to find myself in the position I am in now by just staying true to the game. The basketball gods always come back around if you stay true to the game and respect it the right way. It’s been up and down, but to be here right now is a great blessing to continue to get these opportunities to showcase who I am. I never believed the doubter that said I was this or that. I always knew I was the same player. Sometimes, perception is what it is, but you’ve got to stay the true course and show your true self.
How was it for you in Philadelphia during the start of the “Trust the Process” era?
Noel: Being in the process coming out of college definitely was a process in itself. I had to become more patient at a young age, starting from sitting out. I wanted to play towards the end of the year, and respectfully, it was determined that I shouldn’t play. I was itching at the bit to get out there and showcase myself even if the team was losing. Then, year by year, they drafted Joel (Embiid), but he was hurt, so I was still able to showcase and in the year after that with Jahlil (Okafor). It started to get packed in (the frontcourt), and as a young player at 19, 20, and 21 years old, you want to continue to take steps forward to show your game and take the right steps forward to get better each year. I took it for what it was and continued to work on my game and body throughout the years and work on the things that were going to keep me in the league and keep me getting better. I took it all as a learning experience as a young player in this league with not as much veteran leadership to count on yourself, your coaches, and peers around the league.
What were those Philly practices like with that frontcourt with Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Richaun Holmes, and you?
Noel: Practices were pretty intense. Brett Brown, yeah, we definitely watched tape for 80-90 percent of your practice. We were young. I think we had a top-two or top-three fastest pace in the league. It showed in the games whether we were winning or not. We were competing and playing at as high a level as we could with what we had. We had the respect of the city.
You still keep in touch with Richaun Holmes. Do you ever pinch yourself thinking back to those Philly days that you’d both be in a position to cash out this summer?
Noel: Richaun (Holmes) was a second-round pick, and he had uncertainty behind so many guys. He was just waiting for an opportunity to grow his game. I knew how good he was. I knew his potential and athleticism with the floater he had and threes. You could always build on that. To look back and to see it come to fruition is a good moment. He’s a really good dude and family man. I respect that about him.
You played with Chris Paul in OKC. He’s going to be a future Hall of Famer. What are your thoughts on CP3’s impact?
Noel: Damn right. CP is second to none when it comes to being a mentor and teacher of the game and someone to watch how they operate daily. He’s a pro’s pro. His approach to the game every day is just amazing to see. I like to consider myself a winning player that makes winning plays and plays the right way, but CP is a whole other level, especially when you’re playing with him. He would add onto the things I see and put it in a different type of language that helps you make it happen. He’s always giving you the right advice, whether it’s aggressive or not. Obviously, this is a grown man’s league, so you’ve got to be able to take some criticism or take it in an aggressive manner. I always respected that about him, and he truly wants you to be a better player. Out of all the players in my career — and I’ve seen Deandre Ayton be able to take advantage of their relationship — CP is the one player I can look back and be that much more appreciative that I got to play with him and see it from a pro’s pro.
Why should a team sign you, and what’s something else people don’t know about you?
Noel: I think the proof is in the pudding. I think teams have seen that I go out there and play hard nightly. I’ve always had a winning mentality and go out and put it out there for the guys. I love this game. I’ve shown it year by year how much I appreciate and love this game. I want to hit the best years of my career now in a situation like this where I can choose the right situation to go to and really apply myself to showcase things I haven’t been able to and do things I’ve been doing even better.
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto