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Nerlens Noel is philosophical about the slide that saw him fall from the projected No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft to the No. 6 selection.
While the fall may have cost him millions of dollars, Noel says he is choosing to focus on the positives after being picked by the Philadephia 76ers via the New Orleans Hornets.
“I was really thankful that I got drafted,” he said Monday while in Lexington to serve as an instructor at John Calipari’s annual ProCamp. “Not everybody has the opportunity to play in the NBA. For me to even be in that position, I was really blessed and thankful for it.”
Noel’s reaction should come as no surprise as he spent much of his year in Lexington showing a level of compassion off the court that might not be typically associated with a high-level athlete.
Calipari told campers Monday that Noel arrived at UK with “raw” talent, but he noted there was no work needed on his heart when he came to college.
“I was approached by a student who said, ‘I want to tell you Nerlens went to see my grandmother,’” Calipari explained. “I said, ‘Really? How did this happen?’ I’m thinking the university set it up for him to go to a nursing home. ‘No, I just saw him on campus and I told him my grandmother was here, and he went over to see her.’
“He did the same thing at Children’s Hospital. I got a letter, and I sent it up to our people, and I said, ‘Who set this up? Because we’re in the middle of a season and you’ve got my players going to Children’s Hospital right now? We can do that when the season is over.’ They said, ‘We didn’t do it. He did it on his own.’”
Noel’s spirit often showed up on the court as well, Calipari noted, pointing to the play against Florida in which he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“If you watch the play, it was a hustle play,” Calipari said. “He didn’t turn the ball over. Someone else turned the ball over, and he was going to run the guy down. We’re down 16 points, we’re not going to come back to win that game. That’s the heart he played with.”
Noel says his knee “feels great,” but he acknowledges he needs to be careful during rehabilitation to make sure he comes back stronger than he was before.
“I want to have a long career and make sure it lasts,” he said. “I don’t want to rush it now to put anything at risk.”
For his part, Calipari told campers he was surprised Noel was picked as high as he was. He said a member of the 76ers organization called him after the draft to tell him they were excited to get what they though was the No. 1 pick as late as they did.
“He was the best player in the draft, the most talented in the draft,” Calipari said.
And while Noel may feel blessed to have the opportunity to play in the NBA, he also acknowledges he can used his draft-night slide for motivation moving forward.
“Something when I wake up in the morning that keeps me going,” he said. “It definitely just put more of that fire and just definitely want to get back and show teams what I’m capable of when I get back.”
Calipari hopes the next generation of players, including those at his camp this week, take note of Noel’s example.
“The heart that he has is what I’m trying to get all my guys to be about,” he said. “If you care more about everybody else than yourself, life becomes a whole lot easier. As a basketball player, you learn it’s not about you. It’s about what you do for everybody else.”