The delayed pro basketball debut of Nerlens Noel has gone well so far.
Noel, the sixth overall pick by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2013 NBA Draft out of Kentucky, didn’t play at all in 2013-14 after being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers along with a 2014 first-round pick in exchange for All-Star guard Jrue Holiday and 42nd overall pick Pierre Jackson.
His one-year stint at Kentucky ended prematurely when he tore the ACL in his left knee in a game at Florida on Feb. 12, 2013, and he spent all of last season rehabilitating while the 76ers were struggling through a 19-63 season that included a record-tying 26-game losing streak.
He had 19 points on Saturday to go with four steals, three assists and two rebounds in 26 minutes of an 83-77 loss to the Orlando Magic in his Orlando Summer League debut.
Here’s some of his highlights from his debut:
He sat out Sunday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and had eight points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals in 24 minutes in a win over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.
The tape, as they say, never lies:
On Wednesday, playing on back-to-back days for the first time, Noel responded with his best all-around performance yet—14 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes in a win over the Brooklyn Nets.
The video is impressive, even if he looked winded at times playing in his first back-to-back action:
Noel has looked as explosive as ever, running the floor with point guards and diving fearlessly for loose balls.
His shot-blocking instincts appear to be fine—he’s got nine blocks in 76 minutes—and his shot looks brand-new, a result of working with coach Brett Brown on rebuilding his offensive game last year.
Noel is 13-for-25 from the floor (52 percent) and he’s hit 15-of-19 (78.9 percent) at the foul line.
Compare that latter statistic to the 52.9 percent free-throw shooting he put up in his lone season at Kentucky and you can see that his shooting stroke has had an extreme makeover.
He shot 59 percent for the Wildcats, but his repertoire there didn’t extend much beyond three feet from the rim.
Against Orlando in the Summer League opener, Noel got himself free with an up-and-under move that led to a dunk, a spot on the floor and a defensive look that almost certainly would have resulted in a kickout or an offensive foul while he was at Kentucky.
Then Noel put the ball on the floor (gasp!) and drove hard to the rim, going up strong and finishing through defensive contact.
But the free throw shooting has been remarkable. If this is a glimpse of what Noel will be come this fall, I’m sold.
That’s not to say he’s anything close to a finished product. He still needs to add bulk to his slender frame, because even in Orlando he’s been getting shoved around pretty regularly. Yes, he’s getting foul calls, but they’re coming at a price—he’s taking shots to the body.
On one play against Brooklyn Wednesday, he got fouled and stumble-flew about 20 feet away from the point of contact.
Noel is listed at 228 pounds—the same as he was listed at Kentucky, incidentally—and will need to get stronger to survive the low block in the NBA on a nightly basis.
But the initial signs are positive, particularly considering the expectations that were heightened by a year away.
He’s scheduled to get more Summer League looks for Philadelphia’s entry in the Las Vegas circuit, which opens for the 76ers on Saturday against the Utah Jazz.