It’s about 15 minutes after the Sixers’ shootaround has ended at the Asphalt Green fitness center in downtown New York City on Thursday, and only two people are present in the basketball gym: standout big man Nerlens Noel and head coach Brett Brown.
Noel is getting his knees iced, while Brown is going through some preparation for the 76ers’ game in the evening against the Nets. But their proximity to each other represents their close connection in basketball—and why Brown has high hopes for Noel as a big cornerstone of the team’s future.
“I have a special thing for Nerlens Noel,” Brown says before he leaves, stopping by to check on Noel on his way out. “He has those saucer-shaped eyes, and you just want to hug him. He really wants to learn; he’s going to get better. I even challenge him. I know he loves eggnog, and I tell him that I want to take him to get the best eggnog after every good game he plays.”
While receiving his knee treatment, Noel spoke with the NBPA on all things Sixers, including the process of maintaining focus and handling emotion during a challenging season. Noel also chimed in on the team’s unique effort chart, learning to finish games, adjusting to life on the road as a tall player and much more.
Jared Zwerling: How’s the season progression going for you?
Nerlens Noel: I think it’s been going well—rebounding, double situations, just feeling out playing with Jahlil [Okafor] and figuring some things out. We have; it’s coming together. I’m starting to feel more aggressive and figuring the spacing out and everything.
JZ: I saw you working with two assistant coaches on a low-post move that included two body fakes, a drop step and then a head fake into a shot. How do you feel your offensive repertoire is expanding?
NN: It’s definitely growing. I’m feeling more confident. I’m looking for my shot more. It’s just taking good ones as they come—not really trying to force too much. I’m being aggressive driving to the basket.
JZ: In recent years, Brett Brown has developed an effort chart to “gameify,” as he calls it, different intangibles like hustle plays. How has the effort chart evolved?
NN: They’ve definitely even upped it a little more. I think it does help you to keep track on how much energy you have every game. It’s really based on energy and effort, how much you’re playing with, all the little things that you’re doing—contesting shots, running back on defense, first three steps [which refer to the ones you take after the opposing team secures the rebound and players need to get their momentum in the other direction; the steps are the most important because the goal is for the five defensive players to be ahead of the ball]. It’s all the little things that are going to help you win a game if you do them consistently and with discipline.
JZ: Any new metrics on the effort chart?
NN: More variables like contests, deflections, setting screens, missing screens.
JZ: Do you guys still get a report card after every game based on the effort chart?
NN: Yeah. I had a couple bad ones. A good score is like 16 and up. The highest is like 28. My average is around 17, 18, 19.
JZ: You guys have been in many tight games this season. What are you learning about close-out situations?
NN: I think it’s definitely helped us mature. It doesn’t show on our record how many close games we’ve been in, but I think we’ve been in there with top-tier teams in the last four minutes of the game. We’ve just not been able to execute, get a good shot. This is our first year with so many new guys; it takes a little bit to grow. Coming into the fourth quarter, we’ve had leads against the Mavericks and the Grizzlies. Those are playoff teams, so I think that definitely speaks with how much we’ve progressed.
JZ: When you look at the season so far, what is the best stretch of a game you guys have played that can be used as a benchmark?
NN: I would probably say against the Lakers [on Dec. 1]. That was a close game as well. We were playing so well together, moving the ball. Being able to play like that takes the whole team to another level.
JZ: With everything going on with your team, how do you maintain focus? How do you stay within your lane?
NN: I’m just really focused on myself and the team—nothing outside of it. I don’t really look at too many social networks or the media or anything. I know the direction we’re headed in and how much we’re progressing throughout this year, and how our players are getting better and playing more for each other, and how it will continue to grow, how guys are coming back like Kendall [Marshall] and Tony [Wroten]. It’s going to open up more looks. This team is really going to get deeper and be able to have that type of veteran leadership with Kendall that we need.
JZ: How do you deal with all of the difficult moments?
NN: I really depend on myself a lot, just staying on myself about anything. I feel like I’m my best therapist. Just with the good insight we get from coach Brown, and all the good people around this team, that really helps you. They want to help you get better and put you in a position to play at your best. We’re never really too worried about the record. We’re close, we stick together and it’s been showing. We play hard and compete.
JZ: I was a reading a story recently about how Derrick Favors turns to comic books during his tough times. Do you have an outlet?
NN: Definitely Xbox [One]. I play a lot. I just come home after practice and play. I also take my Xbox on longer road trips. It takes your mind off of it; it can be anything. It’s Xbox or just hanging out with my buddies or my girl.
JZ: What are your go-to games?
NN: The new Call of Duty. I love the new wall running in the game. And I love NBA 2K and Assassin’s Creed.
JZ: What are some of your personal goals looking ahead this season?
NN: My personal goals are just to continue to get better. As the season comes along, obviously I want to up my numbers and put myself in a position to continue to be successful in this league, playing at a high energy, filling the stat sheet and just being that defensive anchor as well. I want to be on All-Defensive teams and win All-Defensive awards, and continue to build my body and become a dominant force in this league.
JZ: By the way, are you monitoring Kentucky basketball at all?
NN: I don’t know how they lost to UCLA [last week], but they look great. Tyler [Ulis] is a floor general. I love his game. I was playing with him a little bit this summer and he’s got that natural NBA type for a point guard. I think he can definitely be an NBA point guard.
JZ: Ever see John Calipari coaching in the NBA?
NN: I think he’s just living in La La Land down there. It’s really hard to leave that and I don’t really see a reason to.
JZ: [A trainer starts taking off the ice packs on his knees.] So you’re going to walk back to the hotel?
NN: Yeah. It’s like the first New York hotel with a decent-sized room.
JZ: Are the beds usually big enough for tall players?
NN: Nah. You’ve got to sleep diagonally sometimes. At 6’11”, anything over that it can be tough, but not all of the beds. You make it work.
JZ: Because you travel so much, do you ever wake up in the morning and forget what city you’re in?
NN: Yeah. I’ve got to wake up and ask myself, “Who are we playing tonight?” It happens. It happened this morning. And you forget the room number, everything.