The uncertainty is palpable. There’s no denying things could change in a matter of days. Yet, throughout it all, Nerlens Noel stays characteristically cool.
“I can always keep myself at peace by knowing I’m good.”
The Philadelphia 76ers center and 6th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft has developed into a devastating force on the defensive end of the floor. After overcoming an ACL injury he suffered while in college at Kentucky, he made the All-Rookie First team in 2015. He then followed that up by achieving the milestone of becoming one of only three players in the NBA to record 100 blocks, 100 steals, and 100 rebounds this past season. Yet, due to Philadelphia’s glut of young centers, Noel’s 2017 free agency, and the success and potential that make him attractive to other teams, the uncertainty remains.
But Noel, sitting on his South Philly rooftop in jogger pants, snakeskin Jordan 4s, and his signature flat-top haircut, is literally looking at the world through rose-colored (Cartier) glasses.
“I worked this hard to get to where I’m at for a reason,” he says. “I need to continue to work to get to where I need to be, but you just gotta always feel that you’ve worked this hard for a reason. With God’s blessing things will always pan out.”
It certainly looks like he’s been working. Today’s Nerlens Noel is visibly bigger than the kid who was still getting accustomed to nightly NBA sumo matches for rebounds with other seven-footers. “I’ve been putting in a lot of work this offseason,” he says. "I just completed the sixth week of my offseason training. I put on about 10 pounds now."
The more weight he puts on, the higher his rebound percentages will be. The higher the rebound percentages, the heavier the future checks. More weight equals heavier checks come this time next year. But before he can start counting cash, there are serious matters at hand that Noel, somehow, is still smiling through.
Perhaps the calm and ease is due to the fact that Noel genuinely seems to be enjoying himself in life. With an NBA lifestyle comes the pressures of celebrity, new commitments to family, and a very public and stressful job, but it seems as if Nerlens Noel has avoided letting that stuff take up too much mental real estate.
Which may actually be pretty easy when your life includes friendships with musicians, custom Jordans, and exclusive Coachella pool parties with supermodels and Drake’s dad.
“Coachella was good; it was my first time there,” Noel says. “Crazy, crazy experience. Probably some of the best times I’ve had. We [he and Sixers center Joel Embiid] were at this party. It had all the girls and everything you would imagine at a crazy Coachella pool party. And we were just hanging out and we saw him outside of the pool party, so we just waved to him like, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s Drake’s pops.’
“We ended up seeing him in there, we chopped it up for a second, said what’s up. He said a couple smooth little old school corny little jokes that were real funny, so we knew he was a cool little OG. So we just took that picture. He was a cool dude.”
The photo, which currently lives on Noel’s Instagram account, is just one example of the 22-year-old rim protector getting more comfortable when it comes to showcasing his personality. The tall hair and infectious smile have always been there, but when you’re a young player with high expectations on a historically bad team in a sports-obsessed city like Philadelphia, sometimes it pays to play things low-key at first. But with Nerlens Noel’s popularity, maturity, and on-court effectiveness all simultaneously rising, it's easy to see why the 6’11” Sixer is comfortable being more expressive.
Noel’s evolving style is certainly an example of this.
“I think my style is probably in it’s own lane,” he says. “Nowadays it’s a little more accepted to be able to dress in your own different style. It’s a lot easier to dress how you want to. A lot of styles are accepted. I think a lot more different lanes have been tapped into. Especially with how hip-hop’s going—how a lot of artists are dressing now.”
“I’ve blocked LeBron already, I’ve blocked KD, I’ve blocked James [Harden], I blocked Westbrook. I don’t know who else I can block.”
Makes sense, especially considering he lists the newest Yeezy line from Kanye West as something in the fashion world he’s very much into. Hip-hop and fashion have always been closely tied—in fact, fashion is actually a subsection of hip-hop if you subscribe to KRS-One’s definition. If you’re into fashion, it’s often difficult to not have some idea of the current trends in rap. Fortunately for Nerlens Noel, he seems to have a pretty strong grasp of both worlds.
Take for example an artist like Lil Uzi Vert, a Philly-born rapper Noel is quick to name as one of the guys getting heavy rotation in his headphones at the moment. “He’s probably one of my favorites right now,” Noel says. “As many bangers as he has, he’s been able to put himself in a position where he’s one of the hottest in the game.”
Nerlens Noel isn’t a bandwagon Uzi fan. He was actually introduced to the colorful burgeoning emcee several years ago, way before he was famous enough to sell out a major show.
“The first time I got to Philly my boy introduced me to Lil Uzi,” Noel says. “He wasn’t even on yet; he was just talking about times when he was staying with this grandmom. It was probably around the time I got drafted. Just seeing what he’s turned into with just how humble he’s been and how creative and how he has really branded himself—it’s something special. He’s on a new wave now.”
But life isn’t all parties with Drake’s dad and walks down memory lane with Lil Uzi Vert. Noel comes from humble roots—both his parents migrated to the United States from Haiti in 1990. And while Noel may look and sound like your typical American 7-foot NBA player, his Haitian heritage and even his Boston upbringing have each played a huge part in who he is today. Including his ability to speak French creole, his foundation, and his charity work.
“Both of my parents are from [Haiti],” Noel explains. “My dad’s from Port-au-Prince and my mom’s from a small town off in the country, so we had our first camp out there last summer. It was our first professional basketball player camp and I think we had about 300 kids. It was great. Gave the kids free sneakers and they were able to just interact with me and just ask me what they wanted. All in all it was a great experience. As much as they’ve struggled, my foundation is really based on helping the youth.”
As far as the Boston area—Noel’s hometown—the Sixers star still has an affinity for it even after living in Philly for three years. Sure, he’s grown accustomed to the City of Brotherly Love and lists Ishkabibble's as his favorite cheesesteak, but Nerlens Noel is still a dude who prays at the altar of Tom Brady and treats Dunkin Donuts like a religion. Which Philadelphians should be quick to forgive. After all, New England is where Noel learned to block shots into other zip codes. And also, surprisingly, where he became a star athlete on the football field as well.
“I played quarterback primarily,” Noel explains. “Then for varsity they used me at wide receiver. I compare myself to probably Randy Moss at the wide receiver. Quarterback, [I was] more like Tom Brady in the pocket because I had accuracy. Outside the pocket, when I wanted to get creative? Probably Cam [Newton]. Because I was bigger than everybody. So I made it happen.”
A bit much to compare himself to arguably the greatest quarterback and greatest wide receiver of all-time? Possibly. But Noel seems confident he could’ve done damage on the gridiron had a coach—and the fact that he was a 6’8” quarterback—not pushed him more in the direction of the hardwood.
“[Laughs.] I was nice, too. I really could’ve played. Obviously basketball was more of my lane so I guess that worked out.”
It’s strange to think of an NBA center dominating on the football field, but when asked who else in the NBA he’d pick to play with if he had to field a football team, Nerlens Noel doesn’t hesitate to rattle off his NBA/NFL Dream Team.
“I’d put in—at quarterback it’d be CP3 [Chris Paul],” he says. “Wide receiver I’m lining up LeBron [James], Paul George, and at the slot I’m gonna put Monta Ellis. I think he’ll be able to make something happen; he’s kinda like the DeSean Jackson type. Running back? I’m putting Reggie Evans [Laughs.]. Reggie Evans at the running back just tanking dudes Jerome Bettis style. That’s a Bill Belichick setup right there.”
Typical Boston homer.
As the sun begins to set on the rooftop interview, he jokes a bit more about some of the teams who passed over him in the 2013 draft and about his celebrity crushes (“Zoë Kravitz is so bad. “She’s so bad, man. Tell her I said that, too!”). But when the conversation turns back to his career and future milestones he’d like to achieve, Noel quickly reverts back to business.
“Every year I wanna come in and have something that I’ve gotten better at,” he says. “This summer it’s a lot about adding size to my body, adding strength, and working on my 15 footer.”
Goals once the season starts? Perhaps there’s a player or two he wants to add to his block list?
“I don’t know, I’ve already blocked a lot of the premier players in this league,” Noel says with a smile. “I’ve blocked LeBron [James] already, I’ve blocked KD [Kevin Durant], I’ve blocked James [Harden], I blocked [Russell] Westbrook. I don’t know who else I can block [Laughs.].”
When asked in the absence of a block list what he’s looking to accomplish, Noel doesn’t hesitate.
“Become an All-Star.”
Easier said than done, but successful people know saying goals aloud is necessary if you want to hold yourself accountable. And Nerlens Noel doesn’t seem like he’s looking for excuses. He’s simply looking for ways to improve. And maybe Zoë Kravitz’s number.