By Matthew Fairburn
It was the fall of Nerlens Noel’s freshman year in high school when Boston Amateur Basketball Club founder and coach Leo Papile realized he would be something special. At BABC’s six-week fall camp, the lanky Everett, Mass. native stood out.
“You didn’t have to teach him,” Papile said. “Just tell him what the scheme was and he knew where to go instinctively. I knew right then the guy was different.” Papile was so impressed that he wasn’t afraid to throw out a lofty comparison.
“I think I even used the phrase ‘Bill Russell,’” Papile said.
Few doubt Noel’s abilities on the defensive end. Standing just under 7-feet tall with a 7-feet-4-inch wingspan, Noel dominated the paint at Kentucky, averaging 4.4 blocks per game.
“He changes the whole complexion of the game,” said Carter-Williams, who played one season with Noel at BABC and is also considered a potential lottery pick in this year’s draft.
Still, even after Noel’s dominant high school career at the Tilton School in New Hampshire and an impressive one-year stint at Kentucky, he was no sure thing at the top of the draft. He’s coming off a torn ACL sustained in February and is considered a work in progress on the offensive end.
Those factors contributed to Noel falling to the New Orleans Pelicans with the No. 6 pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday night. He was immediately traded to the Philadelphia 76ers along with a 2014 first-round pick for guard Jrue Holiday and a 2013 draft pick.
After his draft night fall, Noel, rumored to be in line to be the No. 1 selection of the Cleveland Cavaliers in some pre-draft speculation (the Cavs went with UNLV forward Anthony Bennett), will have the challenge of surrounding himself with the right people, coaches say.
Papile noted that once players start to get reimbursed for their time, it opens up a whole new world.
“It can be a can of worms or it can be a blessing,” Papile said. “Only time’s going to tell.”
Mark O’Neil, who coached Noel at Tilton, insists that his former big man’s success will be determined by whom he listens to. Noel has been making those choices since he was 16 years old, when his recruiting frenzy picked up steam.
“Most adolescents would love to be on top of the world at age 16 or 17,” O’Neil said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily the greatest position for a kid to be in.”
Noel, who has been busy rehabbing his knee, will have to block out distractions while staying motivated to live up to the expectations. At Tilton, Noel was always driven, always reserved, and never gave anything less than 100-percent
on the court, according to his coach. O’Neil sees no reason why that won’t continue.
“There’s a lot of money on the table,” O’Neil said. “I think that would motivate most people.”
Getting passed up by five teams should give Noel even more motivation.