Long and gangly, Nerlens Noel found the last folding chair along the Tilton School’s bench after a prep school tournament win and sat by himself for as long as peace would allow.
It was one of the few moments when things didn’t feel as if they were moving at the speed of business.
Two young boys approached him seeking autographs. An older man came over, shook Noel’s hand, and wished him good luck.
By the time the star center eventually got up, his 6-foot-10-inch frame only made him more of a magnet for attention.
All but a few people in the gym knew Noel’s story.
‘He’s got a unique talent in terms of his combination of size, speed, cat-like reflexes.’
They didn’t know he had left his hometown in Everett to go to Tilton, N.H., where the air seemed cleaner, the scenes more serene, the academics more challenging, the basketball more competitive, and the chance of playing for a top-tier college hoop program more attainable. Nor did they know how hard that proud city took his departure.
They knew the kid with the high-top fade was a player, but didn’t know that with one decision - to elect to graduate from Tilton this spring instead of next - he immediately had been labeled the top prospect in the country or that numerous experts had him projected as an early first-round pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
They knew he was on the radars of a few schools. But, at that point, he was picking from powerhouses - Georgetown, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Kentucky.
Noel cut across the court to make his way to the locker room, when an older man walked up and asked if he knew which school he was thinking about choosing.
Noel smiled and nodded politely. “Where I’m going?’’ Noel said. “I don’t even know yet.’’
Since he decided in February to reclassify from Tilton’s junior to senior class, Noel has felt competing forces pulling at him, prodding him, questioning him.
It’s a feeling he’s used to. He felt the first tug in Everett, where one person after another tried to push him from the city high school to prep school. Then he felt a similar pull at Tilton, where others tried to persuade him to switch prep schools.
Now that he’s picking a college, the forces are more powerful than ever, each trying to lure him to a different campus, and should the day come when the door to the NBA opens, there will be hangers-on trying to squeeze through it with him.
Leo Papile, the Boston Amateur Athletic Club coach who saw Noel when he was 14, has compared him to Patrick Ewing and even Bill Russell, which may seem hyperbolic. It explains the sudden hype that’s mushroomed around Noel.
“It’s like a lottery ticket,’’ Papile said. “Like somebody dropped one on the ground that’s worth $10 million and everyone’s scurrying around like, ‘Where’d the wind blow it?’ Every character in the world is saying, ‘Let me get in there.’ ’’
Noel, who turns 18 on Tuesday, is likable and personable. His boxed hair has become his signature. An Internet-age recruit, he keeps a blog and he has nearly 19,000 people following his every thought on Twitter. He will announce his college choice Wednesday on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m. But knowing the position he’s in, he’s careful to choose the people around him wisely to protect the opportunity in front of him.
“I just keep my circle tight,’’ he said. “I don’t really listen to many of the things that outside people say. I try to keep it with a couple people that are around me.’’
Star of stars
The process of rating and recruiting is its own form of speculation - measuring upside and potential. In that way, Noel is undeniably intriguing.
“He’s got a unique talent in terms of his combination of size, speed, cat-like reflexes and good basketball acumen,’’ said Tilton coach Marcus O’Neil.
His calling card undoubtedly is defense, modeling himself after the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett. He swats shots with equal parts glee and fury. The ones that don’t get blocked get altered.
Noel made a name for himself on the AAU circuit last summer with BABC, but if you could pinpoint the moment when he flashed into the consciousness of national scouts, it was at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield in January.
Five-star recruits Jabari Parker of Simeon High School in Chicago and Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas were there, but Noel snatched the attention from both of them.
“Nerlens was phenomenal,’’ said Adam Finkelstein, editor of New England Recruiting report and the Northeast recruiting coordinator for ESPN.com. “I think in those big settings, when you get seen by a lot of the national guys, I think that was probably a big statement where it at least became a conversation. ‘How does Nerlens compare to Jabari Parker? How does Nerlens compare to Shabazz Muhammad?’ ’’
A month later, the news came that Noel would reclassify. He became the latest in a line of players to do it, including Duke’s Alex Murphy, Las Vegas-Nevada’s Khem Birch, and Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier and Andre Drummond.
For Noel, the decision jump-started the college recruiting rush and created a frenzy around which college he’d ultimately choose.
He visited Georgetown and North Carolina last month in the thick of March Madness, weighing his options after already visiting Kentucky and Syracuse.
“It’s been pretty hectic,’’ he said. “A lot of scout calls, a lot of media sites. But I’ve just been trying to stay focused mentally, take my time with these visits and then eventually make the decision that I think is right for me.’’
What may be most fascinating about him though, is the amount of progress he’s made as a player and the amount of potential still left.
“It’s been a long process,’’ he said. “I’ve just stayed humble through it, kept working hard, trying to get where I’m at right now. I still don’t think I’m where I need to be at. I’ve just got to keep working hard.’’
His shot-blocking is one thing, but he can guard different positions. And where he once was passive offensively, he now puts the ball on the floor, pushes fast breaks, finishes with both hands around the rim, and has developed into a sharp passer.
“Last year, he’s already had uncanny ability as a shot-blocker but he was a little more reluctant of an offensive player,’’ O’Neil said. “That changed this year; he’s started to assert his will on the offensive end.’’
The way everything fell into place, Noel’s decision to reclassify only made sense.
“It has a lot to do with timing,’’ Finkelstein said. “Nerlens, his timing was very good.’’
There was never a question how special Noel was while he was in Everett.
He came from a family of athletes. His brothers Jim and Rodman graduated from Everett High and played Division 1 football.
But John DiBiaso, Everett High’s athletic director, had known Nerlens since he was 7 years old playing on the same teams as his son.
“People would always question his age because he was so tall,’’ DiBiaso said. “But he was so thin you could tell he was young. His face was young.’’
By the time he was a freshman at Everett High, Noel was 6-8. He was raw, but he could change a game.
“He’s a one-man zone on defense,’’ DiBiaso said. “He intimidated 3-point shooters. He would get out on the perimeter and block shots - catch shots!’’
Even then, DiBiaso said, Noel was getting looks from Big East schools such as Syracuse, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut. DiBiaso was emphasizing Georgetown because of its history with big men.
Noel would only play one season for the Crimson Tide, though. At the start of his sophomore season, he broke the growth plate in his left knee and missed the entire year.
Things with Everett were shaky from that point on. DiBiaso could sense different forces tugging at Noel. After the exposure Noel got with BABC, there were more runners and street agents, more prep schools showing interest.
“I had already heard how basketball was so different and how top prospects are,’’ DiBiaso said. “There were so many people grabbing at his coattails. There’s people that I never saw before coming around, ‘Where’s Nerlens?’ They’re giving him rides or they’re doing whatever. It was my first encounter with something like that.’’
The hometown fanbase didn’t want to see him go, but there also were people within Everett’s program who figured going to a prep school would open up more opportunities for Noel academically and athletically. For DiBiaso, it was out of his control.
“There was only so much we could do,’’ he said. “A lot of people say, ‘How can you let it happen?’ We could talk about his two brothers doing well, talk about the fact that it’s his hometown, but we don’t have beautiful dorms or a campus in New Hampshire or trips to Disney World. We don’t have that to offer.
“We talked about it and he had always said that he wasn’t going to [leave]. Then, his sophomore year, I don’t know why he changed his mind, they really didn’t talk about it. But they made the decision after the last day of school that he wasn’t going to go [to Everett].’’
“There was always that possibility in the climate of today where these prep schools take these kids. When you’re that big and you’re that good, there’s going to be so many people tugging at you.’’
The fish was outgrowing the pond.
“I knew he was going to be a great player,’’ DiBiaso said. “It’s just kind of exploded.’’
Looking back, Noel stands by the decision, even though it was difficult.
“It was tough,’’ Noel said. “Even to this day, a lot of people there hold hard feelings. Then, there’s others that just know I did the right thing for my career and know I just wanted to play in the big leagues.’’
A growing following
Tilton has its benefits. Small, focused classes, top-level basketball competition all tucked in an isolated town that’s one-12th the size of Everett. But there’s no force field around the campus.
O’Neil, who pulls double duty as the basketball coach and the school’s college counselor, took on a third job with Noel on his roster: watchdog.
On occasions he had to keep an eye out for people trying to lure Noel from Tilton.
“There’s a lot of people that tried to get him out of here,’’ O’Neil said. “I think in this situation it pays to be proactive, to have your eyes and your ears open. There’s all kinds of people and things that you’re hearing. Some of the stuff, some of the people you hear about are true, some of them are not.’’
He’s keenly aware of how delicate Noel’s situation is.
“They’re saying this kid may be one of the top picks in the draft 18 months from now,’’ O’Neil said. “When you say that, what you’re really doing is putting a $10 million price tag on a kid’s head as an adolescent.
“Who knows what kind of nefarious characters are going to come out of the woodwork? But I trust and I’m hopeful that he will consult his conscience and work with his family to come up with a good choice that’s going to be in his best interest as a person and a player.’’
Just in AAU circles, Papile said there are people who want a piece of Noel who weren’t there when Noel was laying the groundwork.
“If you have guys coming around just getting in a guy’s life that weren’t in his life before and they won’t be after, those are the kinds of red-flag people,’’ Papile said. “But that’s just the way it is now, because the guy’s a commodity and so many people see him as a way to earn - earn stature, a job, money, all of the above.’’
The number of people in his ear has only grown since he chose to reclassify, but Noel said all decisions are his own.
“Everything’s me,’’ he said. “Everything’s my decision. Nobody’s influenced me in any type of way to not do anything that’s in my best interest. It starts with me. I’m just thinking about one step at a time.’’
The next step will be the biggest one he’s taken so far.
“My hope for him,’’ O’Neil said, “is he gets it down to a list where he can’t make a wrong decision.’’