Nerlens Noel didn’t know that his first NBA season would be little more than a waiting game. He tore his left anterior cruciate ligament Feb. 12, 2013, while at the University of Kentucky. It is an injury that usually takes 12 months of recovery time.
Twelve months after suffering the injury Noel was growing anxious, but the Philadelphia 76ers, in the midst of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, had no intention of allowing him to make his debut. Noel had tweeted “4-4-14” to mark a 76ers game in his native Boston as a potential date to make his debut. But the 76ers held him back.
Nearly two months later, Noel remains primed for action, but wearing a 76ers practice jersey playing in front of team officials and media at the Orlando Magic practice facility will have to suffice. The former Everett High School star, who will play in the Orlando Summer League, said his left knee is completely healthy and he’s ready to finally resurface.
“The whole offseason I’ve really focused on getting stronger, putting on weight and gaining muscle, and that’s what I did,” the 6-foot-11-inch Noel said. “Every aspect and skill point, I’ve been working on, too. My shot, I’ve progressed a lot, and I’m working on my technique. Every part of my game I’ve improved on.”
The 76ers are one of the league’s more intriguing teams because of the work of general manager Sam Hinkie. They own the third and 10th overall picks, while Hinkie amassed a staggering five second-round picks, giving the club seven picks in the June 26 NBA Draft. Of course, the 76ers are likely to deal some of those picks on draft night, but they are beginning to build a talented young core with Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, possibly Thaddeus Young, along with Noel and two top-10 picks. Young remains a candidate to be dealt this offseason.
“I’m real excited about the third pick and real intrigued by the 10th pick,” Noel said. “Philadelphia is a great city and definitely deserves a winner. You want to do as much as you can to get them back and we definitely want to make it successful.”
It’s been a difficult period for Noel, who was the projected No. 1 overall pick before his injury. He was taken sixth overall by New Orleans and then dealt to the 76ers on draft night in a deal that included All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday going to the Pelicans. By the time the 76ers got to Boston on April 4, Noel looked ready to face competition, but coach Brett Brown squelched his hopes earlier that day by noting that his rookie was “not close” to ready.
“I’ve learned so much [over the past year] through basketball and life itself, even after the injury,” Noel said. “You really look at things in a whole different light and that’s definitely how it’s been for me. I feel like I’ve aged mentally in how I look at every aspect of life, just not taking anything for granted. Basketball, I’ve learned a lot as well, just not being able to play, being on the bench watching guys like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah — guys like that, just really picking their games apart, seeing all the little things they do and trying to implement it into my game.”
Noel was considered ready for the NBA defensively while at Kentucky, but offensively he was raw. When asked if he is a different player offensively since February 2013, Noel said, “Definitely, I’m a lot stronger and more confident with the moves I make. I’m just really feeling great. Obviously, it’s going to take some time in the game to be able to drive and get my wind and feel like I am in game shape.”
Noel has picked up one of his first endorsements for CoachUp, a personal coaching and training program that he used throughout his high school years.
“It was always great having someone bring your game along not only physically but mentally,” he said. “A personal coach is always something you can fall back on whether you have a bad game or your shot’s not going the right way — it’s always great to have someone know your tendencies.”
Noel said a personal coach aided his development because of the personal relationship he developed. He transferred from Everett to Tilton School in New Hampshire for his final two high school years, and developed into one of the country’s top recruits in 2012.
“I think the personal attention really helped me,” he said. “And obviously I have worked with 76ers guys for the past several months and I am really ready to get on the court. I am excited.”
LITTLE BIG MAN
Louisville star Smith plans to quiet skeptics
According to DraftExpress.com, Russ Smith is projected to go 49th overall to the Chicago Bulls, while NBADraft.net has Smith undrafted, and MyNBADraft.com has Smith going 51st to the Dallas Mavericks. The former Louisville guard enjoyed a remarkable career for the Cardinals, helping Rick Pitino’s club win a national championship. But there always have been questions about how his game will translate in the NBA.
He is a ball-hawking guard but weighed in at 160 pounds at the draft combine in Chicago, tied for the lightest of the prospects. It appears Smith will have to begin his professional career much like he did in college, proving naysayers wrong about his physical ability to compete with bigger players.
Smith is a point guard who is a fearless leader but did make his share of plays that caused Pitino’s hair to change color. He took chances but most of them ended up as the proper decisions. Smith has supreme confidence in his game.
“I told [scouts] I can play the lead guard if you want me to or I can score the ball on the wing like Lou Williams or Monta Ellis or [Allen] Iverson if they would like me to — but I can do both,” he said. “It’s wherever [NBA teams] want to put me at. I’m good at adapting.”
Smith was 36th in the nation last season with 2.1 steals per game. He also averaged 4.7 assists per game or 6.5 per 40 minutes. Smith said he distributed the ball depending on need.
“I take pride on the defensive end, a lot of guards don’t do that,” he said. “This year, whoever I matched up against, I probably outplayed them. I’m pretty sure out of the guards here [at the draft combine] I averaged the same amount of assists or per 40 minutes, I probably averaged the most. I’ve had games where I decided to get 13 assists, 11 assists, 12 assists. It’s fairly easy. It’s not hard for me to get assists at all.”
Smith was close to declaring for the draft following the Cardinals’ national championship victory over Michigan in 2013 but he made the late decision to return for his senior year. He was named a first-team All-American.
“It helped me a lot,” Smith said of the extra year. “It gave me court awareness. I figured out where my teammates were. I figured out what’s good shots and what’s bad shots. I realized the shots I needed to take that I could shoot a higher percentage. I just decided that if it’s not a layup or a floater that I won’t take it.”
Smith and Pitino grew to have a healthy respect for one another.
“My dad instilled the competitiveness in me but Coach P made me take it to another level,” said Smith, who averaged 18.2 points and 3.3 rebounds last season. “And now I can go out and I don’t care what anyone has ever did or if anyone is 6-5, I’ll fight it out. If you want to play physical, I’ll play physical. If you want to play soft, I’ll take advantage of you.”
When asked if he is being underestimated prior to the draft, Smith said, “Oh, yeah. What they see is a senior, a guy who’s slim. They really don’t look at the body of work. If they look at everybody I played against and every draft pick that went and how I outplayed them, they wouldn’t be talking about me the way they are talking now.”
Pitino believes Smith will make a fine NBA player. “Russ is a very unique pick because Russ is an unguardable basketball player,” the coach said. “And although a lot of teams are not looking at him in the first [round], every coach I’ve seen at the ACC meetings, if you are a first-round draft choice and you are a guard and you’re at a workout camp and Russ Smith walks in, you’re telling your agent to get you the hell out of there. That’s the type of kid Russ is. If he comes walking through that door, you want to say immediately my hamstring’s bothering me.”
Said Smith, “If it was up to my body of work, everybody would love me. But that’s not the case. I’m not going to be complacent with just contributing. If I know I can contribute and do more, then I’ll turn it up. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
That confidence is likely what will help carry Smith into the NBA, and he said that’s all the opportunity he requires.
“I know individually, nobody can guard me,” he said. “I can get any shot I want. I can get to any spot I want. I make the best decisions and I have been the most efficient player in America the past two seasons. If that is not the proof in the pudding, I don’t know what is.”
Small-market teams making their mark
Three of the four teams in the NBA semifinals were from what is considered smaller markets, making those in the league offices smile since there is a wide perception that large-market teams rule because the league’s premium players only choose to play in a handful of cities.
That is the case with the Miami Heat, but the Spurs, because they are well-managed, have maintained their dominance by convincing their core to stay in San Antonio at reduced contracts. The Indiana Pacers reached the Eastern Conference finals because team president Larry Bird managed their salary structure to where their core players are secured for two more seasons. In Oklahoma City, general manager Sam Presti had to make the difficult decision of moving James Harden to the Houston Rockets two years ago so he could pay Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. But the only Thunder contributors who are free agents this year are Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and Caron Butler. Smaller- and medium-market teams can compete annually but they have to be managed well, and that has been the issue in Sacramento, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Detroit, and Minnesota.
“If there’s any one thing that’s great for the league, it’s when the small markets do well,” Hall of Fame guard Reggie Miller said. “Because that’s only going help out the league overall. You can’t always have Boston, New York, Chicago, or LA in the Finals. If that’s the case, we just need to have a 10-team league and that’s it. It’s always good when Utah, Milwaukee, Indiana, Memphis do fairly well because they are well-managed. It helps. I just hope players don’t always look at dollar signs and big markets and equate that to success.
“You can have success [in a small market]. Our second-biggest star behind LeBron James is Kevin Durant and he plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the last time I checked he’s on every other commercial in the NBA. That shows you that you can have success in a smaller market.”
Meanwhile, NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony, who should get some feelers for management positions in the near future, said one of these small-market teams is capable of overcoming the Heat, who may be in their final days of dominance.
“First I’d say this Miami team, while still capable, is probably not as complete or as good as the [Miami] teams that have won it in the past,” Anthony said. “That supporting cast is not nearly as supportive. I think you saw a little bit of that formula with Indiana [in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals]. The biggest thing with this Miami team, the things they have thrived on in the past, their ability to make threes and their defense, they’re not as good at it.
“Chris Bosh is going to have to play extremely well and I think Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron have to play at even a higher level to have a chance. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”
The Heat on Friday became the first team since the Celtics (1984-87) to reach four consecutive NBA Finals.
“When you talk dynasties, very few teams have won back-to-back championships, much less win three in a row, so they’re going to have their place in history regardless of this outcome,” Anthony said.
Said Miller, “I think we’re all waiting for the Heat to go into that extra gear. I remember a season ago when they won  games in a row. We haven’t seen that extra gear yet and it’s not a light switch. It’s whoever gets hot at the right time.”
The Brooklyn Nets will hold a free agent workout camp beginning Monday at their practice facility in East Rutherford N.J., and those scheduled to participate are ex-Pittsburgh forward Gilbert Brown, who was in camp with the Celtics two years ago, former Missouri standout and 2012 second-round pick Kim English, former Sacramento Kings first-round pick Donte Greene, who was briefly a Celtic last offseason, Rick Jackson (Syracuse), Malcolm Lee (UCLA, Timberwolves), DeAndre Liggins (Thunder/Heat), David Noel (North Carolina), DaJuan Summers (Pistons), Scott Machado (Iona), and Michael Snaer (Florida State) . . . The power shift in Memphis with the departure of CEO Jason Levien and player personnel director Stu Lash has given an opportunity for former Celtics general manager Chris Wallace to have a voice in basketball operations again. Wallace’s duties were changed when Robert Pera took over ownership. Wallace executed the deal that sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers for among others Kwame Brown and eventual 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Wallace is expected to remain in the GM role after being essentially an outsider for two years . . . Former Celtics assistant Tyronn Lue has an interview scheduled with the Cleveland Cavaliers and is considered a rising coaching prospect after spending the past two years on Doc Rivers’s staffs in Boston and with the Los Angeles Clippers. Lue began on Rivers’s staff after his playing career and received kudos for his relationships with players and his performance during the Celtics’ summer league stints in Orlando and Las Vegas two years ago. Also interviewing in Cleveland is fellow Clippers assistant Alvin Gentry, who may be close to getting another head coaching job. Gentry is considered a solid offensive coach from his days in Phoenix and may be a viable candidate for a teams such as Cleveland and Minnesota. And don’t forget former Toronto coach Sam Mitchell, who is also drawing the interest of the Timberwolves. Mitchell played in Minnesota with Kevin Garnett and has a good relationship with owner Glen Taylor. Mitchell coached the Raptors for four-plus years during the Chris Bosh era and reached the playoffs twice. Mitchell was removed after beginning the 2008-09 season with an 8-9 record. . . . Former NBA official Ronnie Nunn was named associate commissioner of officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference. Nunn was an NBA official from 1984-2003.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.