ORLANDO — It didn’t happen April 4, 2014, during the Sixers’ visit to TD Garden. It came on July 5, 2014, at a packed practice facility at Amway Center as Everett native Nerlens Noel finally turned his NBA dream into a reality.
After tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament Feb. 12, 2013, while chasing down a layup attempt by Florida’s Mike Rosario for visiting Kentucky, Noel stepped onto the floor again Saturday. In his first competitive game since the injury, Noel scored 19 points in an 83-77 Philadelphia loss to the Magic at the Orlando Pro Summer League.
The 76ers consider Noel a cornerstone in their rebuilding project and Saturday was the first step (a major one) in his maturation into a productive NBA player. About 20 pounds heavier than his Kentucky days, Noel looked comfortable, using his athleticism to irritate opponents defensively.
It was a victory for Noel, who wanted to return to the court months ago, but the 76ers — in their pursuit of the league’s worst record and for Noel’s precaution — prevented the 6-foot-11-inch center from playing until the summer.
Noel hardly looked rusty, beginning with a dunk 20 seconds into the game. That dissipated the jitters and he looked comfortable for his 26 minutes 17 seconds, adding 4 steals, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 block.
Noel attempted in vain to take his performance in stride, understanding this is the first of thousands of games and scrimmages.
But the first is always special.
“It’s been 18 months since I played in an organized game and [Saturday’s game] felt great,’’ he said. “I didn’t go as long as I wanted, rebounding, being active defensively, so that will come through as I build more stamina.
“I’m really happy, but you know I can’t get too happy. It’s a long road ahead of me and I’ve got to stay focused. There’s no time to celebrate now.”
The future is bright for Noel, but rather uncertain for the 76ers. Their top two draft picks — Joel Embiid and Dario Saric — won’t play with the team this season as the Sixers continue their confounding rebuilding plan under general manager Sam Hinkie.
While it appeared Noel was annoyed with the team trailing most of the game Saturday, he will have to temper his emotions if he expects to make it through even November of the regular season.
It’s going to be a trying season for the rookie. Listed at 228 pounds, he will have to adjust to the NBA physically, and he will get pushed around mightily in the paint until his strength increases.
He did work on a series of skills during his rehabilitation, such as free throw shooting.
He shot 52.9 percent from the line in his 24 games at Kentucky; he made all seven of his attempts against the Magic.
“Part of the year was spent with Nerlens trying to break down the mechanics of his shot,” 76ers summer league coach Lloyd Pierce said. “He couldn’t do much physically for the first half of the season, but what he could do is work on shooting free throws. Moving forward, his confidence has to be through the roof.”
Expectations are high. The 76ers are banking that what Noel learned during his rehabilitation season can help him make a more rapid adjustment to the NBA. He was projected as the top overall pick in the 2013 draft before the knee injury, tabbed as an athletic defensive menace who can cause havoc with his speed. His offensive game will eventually become a factor, but the Philadelphia faithful will have to be patient.
“Nerlens had a heck of a game and we expect him to do it every single night,” Pierce said. “It’s going to be tough. He hasn’t played in a long time. We’re going to be very cautious [with his return], very smart. As well as he played [Saturday], we’re still going to be cautious with the rest of the summer.”
Regardless of the defeat, it was a successful day for Noel. He didn’t favor the knee. He was unafraid to attack defensively or dive for loose balls, and he came away with a confidence that will foster his continued development.
“No mental blocks,” he said of the knee. “It’s been 18 months and I haven’t been thinking of the knee for a long time now. I’m definitely continuing to get it as strong as possible and still working.”