It's been 466 days since Nerlens Noel last played in an actual basketball game — one year, three months and 12 days since the shot-blocking Kentucky Wildcats star tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, ending his freshman year in Lexington and dropping him from a likely No. 1 selection in the 2013 NBA draft to the No. 6 pick, where he was taken by the New Orleans Pelicans before being flipped to the Philadelphia 76ers with a 2014 first-rounder (which we now know will be the 10th overall pick) in exchange for point guard Jrue Holiday.
That total's going to keep increasing, what with the NBA working through its final four and the 19-63 Sixers nowhere near live action. After more than 15 months of questions as to when the 6-foot-11 Noel would actually return to the court, though, we've now got our answer for when the wait will end — the 20-year-old big man told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe that he'll make his NBA debut for the 76ers in the 2014 Orlando Summer League, which begins July 5:
“I’ve been 100 percent for months now,” Noel told the Globe. “I feel great and continue to get stronger in all parts of my body, just continuing my growth really. I will be playing in summer games and summer league.” [...]
“It’s beyond words [to play], it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I feel I’m definitely ready and focused. The whole offseason, I’ve focused on being stronger and working on my skill points, working on my shot, which I have progressed a lot with, working on my technique. Every part of my game I feel I’ve definitely improved on.”
You'd have to imagine that the wait has been excruciating for Noel, even though it was largely expected. While Noel was already months removed from surgery and well into his recovery by late October, Sixers coach Brett Brown said a couple of weeks before the start of the 2013-14 season that it was unlikely Noel would suit up. That gave Noel and the 76ers plenty of time to work on rebuilding (or maybe even just building) the big man's jumper in the hope of giving him a non-springs-dependent offensive weapon to use when he finally came off the shelf, but it didn't exactly eliminate questions about when he might actually get to use it.
Those questions persisted late into the season, with the team in the midst of what would become an NBA-record-tying 26-game losing streak and its fans looking for stuff to be excited about. In early March, Noel tweeted "4-4-14," which many read as an indication that the Malden, Mass., native would make his NBA debut when Philly visited the Boston Celtics on April 4. He didn't.
“It was a goal of mine to be able to come back and be cleared to play by the Sixers by then, but I was not, and that’s that,” Noel said.
That date came and went, as did the rest of the Sixers' "success" of a season, and Noel never actually got on the court, despite being — by his own estimation — "100 percent for months." If that's actually true, and Noel actually was healthy enough to get on the floor during the ostensible garbage time that constituted the final month (or two months, or three months) of Philadelphia's season, then keeping him in mothballs seems at best weird and at worst counterproductive.
It's reasonable to err on the side of caution when considering the well-being of an important long-term asset, but a healthy 19-year-old who'd had more than a year to recover and who'd been feeling fine for quite some time would seem to have a relatively low likelihood of re-injury. Plus, as BDL Editor Kelly Dwyer wrote back in April, "No amount of after-practice jump hook contests against Jarvis Varnado and Brandon Davies will prepare [Noel] for life as a technical rookie," because the only way to experience NBA game situations is to, y'know, actually experience playing in NBA games.
Be that as it may, the 76ers elected to keep Noel in bubble-wrap through the end of the season, preferring to ease him back into action during the lower-stakes, lower-intensity, lower-competition summer session. We're not going to learn if Noel's the world-beating defensive force we've envisioned during a brief stint in Orlando, but at long last, we're at least going to learn what he looks like on an NBA court (kind of) alongside NBA players (kind of). It might not amount to all that much, but it also might give us some indication of whether a Sixers team pairing him with reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and two '14 lottery picks will stand a chance of making a quick rise from the nether regions of the Eastern Conference; that's something, at least.
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