'Just a classy dude': Nerlens Noel first got to know Thunder coach Billy Donovan on the recruiting trail
The first time Billy Donovan saw Nerlens Noel play basketball, the lanky center was in high school.
Donovan, then head coach at Florida, had already led the Gators to back-to-back national titles, in 2006 and 2007. But that was a few years before the height of Noel’s recruitment. In 2012, Noel’s last year of high school, Kentucky won the NCAA championship.
Donovan said he figured out “pretty quickly” that Noel wasn’t going to end up at Florida.
“But I tried going into his junior year and then going into his senior year,” Donovan said. “But then, as it started coming down, I knew we were going to have a hard time. And the people I respected, they were honest. They probably said, ‘You’re on the outside looking in on this one.’”
Donovan, now coach of the Thunder, had an impressive track record for producing NBA talent when he was at Florida. Bradley Beal, Al Horford and Udonis Haslem highlight the list of Florida alumni in the NBA. But Donovan is the first to joke about the masses of future NBA players he recruited and didn’t land.
They’re scattered throughout the league, but not many ended up on Donovan’s own team — a young squad that includes players who were high school underclassmen in Donovan’s final year coaching college ball. Donovan lightly recruited Terrance Ferguson, who forwent college to play in Australia. But Noel’s case is unique.
“I saw Nerlens play a ton in high school,” Donovan said. “And he kind of played in a lot of the high-low action where he was at the top of the key and he’d throw high-low passes or he’d distribute. He’s always been a really good passer, and he’s a really quick roller to the basket.”
This season, Donovan has called on Noel’s passing ability more often than last year. And Noel has embraced the familiar role. Entering the Thunder’s game at Cleveland on Saturday, the OKC center is average 1.2 assists per game off the bench. That’s double his assist production last season.
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And he’s doing it with a coach that eight years ago kept showing up at both a New Hampshire school gym and Noel’s AAU games.
“He (Donovan) commanded respect with his professionalism,” Tilton School coach Marcus O’Neil said in a phone interview. “When he was talking to a high school kid, I don’t think his demeanor or tenor changed at all. He’s all business. And I could see that as something that would resonate with Nerlens, even at that time.”
Noel was the consensus No. 1 recruit coming out of high school, so a lot of coaches were in the stands. But he remembers Donovan.
“Just a classy dude,” Noel told The Oklahoman. “He’s just real laid back. He’s just a people person that knows how to get along with people and set the vibes right. He’s a leader in his own right, and I saw that early on. That’s why Florida was in my Top 3.”
Noel sped up his recruitment process in February 2012. He re-classified to the Class of 2012 and set up a series of college visits. He originally planned to visit Florida but committed to Kentucky before making it down to Gainesville.
“Florida was up there for me,” Noel recalled earlier this season, “but I just wanted to wrap it up. It was tough for me because I wanted to get down there. If I had to re-do it, I definitely would.”
Noel and Donovan’s paths crossed again in SEC play. On Feb. 12, 2013, Noel, the Wildcats’ star freshman, tore his ACL in a loss at Florida, ending his season.
“I felt bad for him because he probably had every opportunity to be player of the year in our league,” Donovan said. “And when he went out, their team totally changed because they didn’t have his presence in the middle.”
The injury also hurt Noels’ draft stock. He had been a shoo-in for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft but fell to New Orleans at No. 6. Four years later, Noel signed with the Thunder as a free agent.
There, Noel joined a coach who he already had begun to get to know.
“I knew he really wanted me at Florida,” Noel said. “I knew his resume and how special of a coach he was. … And even these days, we have such a good relationship.”
Thunder at Cavaliers
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland
TV: FS Oklahoma, NBA TV
Radio: WWLS-AM 640 / 98.1 FM