This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s Massachusetts edition. Since it was published, Noel reclassified to the Class of 2012 and took the No. 1 spot in the ESPNU 100. He will make his college decision April 11 on ESPN and is down to a final three of Georgetown, Kentucky and Syracuse.
Chances are you noticed, so we might as well address it right off the bat.
Nerlens Noel has excellent hair.
The high-top fade is certainly a bold fashion choice for a kid born in the mid-’90s, when the style was seemingly on its last legs. Sure, people have sported the cut from time to time since then — Milwaukee Bucks star Brandon Jennings comes to mind — but Noel has worn the ‘do with authority for nearly two years.
So invariably, people notice. And invariably, people ask.
“I think mainly just growing up, watching a lot of Will Smith,” he says by way of explanation.
Noel’s favorite show is “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Smith’s first major acting gig, but he’s also into “House Party,” a 1990 movie starring Kid ‘n’ Play — the duo of rappers-turned-actors who helped popularize the hairstyle.
And it’s not just the hair.
“He likes the flattop and the snap-back hats and all that,” says Noel’s brother Rodman. “He thinks he’s an ’80s baby.”
Without making too much of a hairstyle that could, after all, be gone by the time you read this, the point is that Noel has no qualms with making a statement. And once you get past the hair, the first thing you notice about Noel is that the 6-foot-10 Everett native can jump. He’s athletic and can dunk with ease, but the leaping ability is most noticeable on defense, where he menacingly roams the paint for The Tilton School (Tilton, N.H.).
“He’s an uncanny defensive player,” says Tilton coach Marcus O’Neil. “He has unusual and exceptional quick-ness on defense.”
Those attributes have made Noel the top shot blocker in the country regardless of class. Rated the nation’s No. 2 junior in the ESPNU 60, Noel averaged 13 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks per game last winter as Tilton captured the NEPSAC Class AA title.
Which is not to say last season was always easy for Noel. It was his first year at Tilton, and he often missed his family and his hometown.
“The first couple months was really an adjustment,” he says, “(but) just having a lot of friends up here that I know from AAU basketball just really made it more comfortable for me.”
Those same friends had factored into his decision to attend Tilton in the first place. Noel plays with BABC, one of the top AAU programs in the country, and over the past few years a number of the team’s players have gone on to prep at Tilton. They include Alex Oriakhi and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who like Noel were from Massachusetts. After Tilton, the pair went on to help UConn capture a national championship last season.
The opportunity to play with and against top talent trumped Noel’s hometown pride. Everett is first and foremost a football town, as evidenced by the fact that his two older brothers, Rodman (N.C. State) and Jim (Boston College), now play Division I football after starting for the Crimson Tide. Nerlens decided that Tilton gave him the best chance to succeed.
“I think it’s really one of the best high schools in the country,” he says. “And I think anybody that can come in and play in this league can play almost anywhere.
“There were also academic considerations. Nerlens spent two years at Everett and had found his groove by the time he left, but by reclassifying last year he was able to get a better base academically. With the individual tutoring he receives at Tilton, it’ll be that much easier for him to satisfy the NCAA Clearinghouse requirements.
This was a huge selling point for his mother, Dorcina.
“The education of my son comes first, before the NBA,” she says.
Dorcina and her husband, Yonel, came to the Boston area from Haiti in 1990. They eventually split up, and for much of Nerlens’ life his mom was forced to work two jobs, until a back injury limited her mobility.
Seeing his mom struggle has made Noel strive even harder “to make it for myself and my family.”
“It definitely builds a drive, just knowing that you got to work hard and nothing is given,” he says. “You’ve got to work hard for what you want to be successful.”
This year will be a big one for Noel. As a junior, he’ll receive even more attention from colleges, and he plans on releasing a list of his early favorites at some point this fall. Moreover, he’ll be looked upon to lead Tilton, which plays a tough national schedule, both on and off the court.
“Last year I played a leading role, too, but I’m just going to take it to another level this year,” Noel says. “Just take some of the guys under my wing, keeping them relaxed, not letting the nerves get to them.”
Before he gets to the next level, Noel is trying to expand his offensive repertoire and add “good weight” to his frame. He doesn’t yet have the bulk to really bang down low with college-sized centers.
But maybe he won’t have to. His favorite player is Kevin Garnett, and while Noel’s face-up game doesn’t yet match that of the Celtics star, he’s equally active — and talkative — on the defensive end.
“He’s a fierce competitor who doesn’t back down to anybody on the other team,” says O’Neil. “He’d be happy if the other team didn’t score a point.”
That competitive drive pairs nicely with his defensive instincts and extreme athleticism. And you can’t question his swagger — just look at that hair.