Philadelphia Freedom: Nerlens Noel's NBA Journey Finally Begins

After an injury cost him his rookie season, the Sixers' big man is ready to roll

Nerlens Noel grabs a rebound during a preseason game against the New York Knicks on October 14th, 2014. Credit: Rich Barnes/Getty

The list of players who have redshirted their rookie year is not long, but it does include Blake Griffin and David Robinson.

The Admiral, however, delayed his official entry into the NBA for two years because of his commitment to the Navy, while Griffin missed his rookie season after breaking his kneecap in the preseason. Other players who've missed their rookie season – Nick Collison, Speedy Claxton – were also casualties of preseason injuries, which makes the case of the Philadelphia 76ers' Nerlens Noel somewhat unique.

After a freshman season at Kentucky that saw him gather steam as a potential Number 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, then lose it after tearing his ACL in a game against Florida in mid-February, the 6-foot-11 Noel was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans and then traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday with the full knowledge that he would likely not play a minute in the 2013-14 season. But the team was willing to wait on Noel's rookie year, because the case of the Sixers is also somewhat unique.

"I feel like it is a rookie year on the court, but not the rookie year in the locker room," Noel says. "I definitely have a leadership role for this team, especially defensively, because we are a defense-first team. I want to be the anchor, to continue to build on my leadership."

That's right: the 20-year-old Noel is poised to be a leader on this team, and you only have to look at their roster to know why. This is not a squad replete with household names (quick, pronounce "Luc Mbah a Moute"). In short, the Sixers' version of rebuilding makes other teams' rebuilds look like cosmetic touch-ups – Philly is tearing this thing down to the studs and then ripping out those studs.

But if Noel's performance in Summer League and the preseasonnot to mention on the stage – is any indication, he may be a stud worth building around, even if he still has a long way to go, particularly on the offensive end.

"Definitely the 15-footer," he replies, when asked about what he's working on. "Being able to knock it down with more consistency, especially when I'm open. Get stronger. And my free throws, because if I do utilize my quickness and get to the free-throw line and be effective there, it'll do my team a lot of good."

Of course, until Philadelphia's season officially begins tonight, Noel's play on the court remains theoretical. But his year of waiting and rehabbing also gave him the chance to acclimate to everything around the game before jumping into it.

"I got up to the speed of the NBA game," he says. "Just being at the end of the bench every night and seeing how the NBA lifestyle operates with all the traveling and how jet lag is. Watching guys like Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, guys like that: seeing all their little moves and all their little tricks."

The Sixers are hoping that experience not only pays dividends for Noel but for their top draft pick this year, Joel Embiid, another big man expected to go first in the draft who slipped because of an injury and who will likely not see the court in his first year.

"I tell him to stay poised and focused," Noel says. "That it's going to be a frustrating process and make sure that you're always getting your rehab done and make sure you're learning. This is the only time you'll be in this position – hopefully. He really has to take as much as he can from the NBA and Coach Brown and the lifestyle of the pro."

For the record, Noel is a month younger than Embiid, and according to Brett Brown – brutally honest, as ever – though he might talk like a pro, he still has a long way to go before being NBA ready.

"He plays the game so fast in his mind," Brown says. "Because he's so athletic and bouncy, you get a fast mind and a fast twitch. It's a collision of reckless decisions at times, making the game a little more difficult because of the speed. He was a total rebuild – that is true."

In a way, Noel is a microcosm of the whole situation in Philadelphia right now. An improvement on last season's 19-63 mark is a definite possibility, and though the desire to make a miraculous leap in there, well, the talent might not be. At least not yet. Noel could be a future star alongside reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and Embiid.

The future in Philly is bright. But for now, like Noel, the Sixers have to walk before they can run. Or jump.

"Nerlens hasn't played. And he's just turned 20 a while ago. And it's the NBA," Brown said. "Not good recipes for just coming in and kicking ass. And so, we have to be patient. We have to be patient."