NEWPORT, R.I. - As evidenced by his blockbuster acquisition by the 76ers during the 2013 NBA draft, Nerlens Noel came into the league with amazing defensive skills, unparalleled athleticism, and immediate hype.
But in the subsequent two years, critics have voiced concerns about his ability as a power forward and are wondering whether he's just a phenomenal shot blocker who struggles to shoot the ball.
And that has brought Noel to Newport, R.I., a picturesque seaside city with a population of 24,027 on Aquidneck Island in Newport County. Located 70 miles south of Boston, Newport is known as a New England summer resort and for the Newport Mansions. But this summer, it's also the location of "Camp Noel."
With the supervision of his manager, Chris Driscoll, and former Boston Celtics coach John Carroll, the 6-foot-11 post player is working on his shooting and strength at Salve Regina University and the Boys & Girls Club of Newport County. He spends upward of two hours on form shooting, followed by weight training and individual post-move development, five days a week.
Noel spent the month of June here before joining the Sixers at the Utah Jazz and NBA summer leagues in July. Then he returned in August.
Of course, Noel could be doing this at the Sixers' practice facility at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
"Yeah, I could," Noel said Wednesday night over dinner. "But I felt individualizing this for myself, putting all the attention on myself, working on something up here . . . I thought this is a little more dedication to be in Newport,R.I., where there isn't too much going on."
While his physique won't be confused with Dwight Howard's, Noel's muscle gain is noticeable.
The 21-year-old weighs about 223 pounds, up from the 217 he carried last season. Mainly, Noel has worked on his jump shot, which has been his Achilles' heel.
"A lot of people say work on your weaknesses until they become strengths," Carroll said, "because in the NBA if you have weaknesses, people will exploit them."
If he improves his shooting, Noel's ability to get to the rim will improve as well.
"I think it's really going to help me as a basketball player overall, especially at [power forward]," Noel said of the daily workouts. "[It will] help space the floor with my ability and start hitting the jumper consistently and complement our whole offense. And, you know, just changing my whole game and how effective I am."
Make or break?
By now, most Sixers fans know Noel's story.
He was projected to be the first overall pick of the 2013 draft. Noel, however, dropped to the New Orleans Pelicans in the sixth spot after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his lone season at Kentucky.
The Sixers acquired him, along with a 2014 first-round pick, on draft night in exchange for then-all-star point guard Jrue Holiday.
Noel sat out what would have been his rookie season during the 2013-14 campaign and struggled at the start of last season. However, he turned things around, finishing third in rookie of the year voting behind Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Andrew Wiggins and Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic.
Noel finished the season with averages of 9.9 points and 1.7 assists, leading all rookies in rebounding (8.1), steals (1.77), and blocks (1.89) in 75 games. The last player to post those numbers in more than 50 games was Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994-95.
However, Noel was more successful while playing center than at power forward. The problem - so the Sixers thought - was that Joel Embiid was going to take over the center position this season.
As a result, Noel was moved to power forward for his last six games and wasn't as consistent.
He's expected to stay at power forward even though Embiid will miss his second consecutive season after surgery on his right foot earlier this month. Jahlil Okafor, the third overall pick in June's draft out of Duke, is expected to assume the center position.
The worst shooter of the three, Noel has no guarantee that he will remain in the starting lineup in 2016-17 if Embiid returns healthy.
"It's a pressure year for me to show what I am capable of and definitely show what I worked this hard for," Noel said of the coming season. "So I think I'm in a good position to showcase it all. My ceiling will be better at the four position."
Extremely athletic, Noel is better equipped to chase power forwards playing on the perimeter than Okafor or Embiid. But he needs to improve his shooting away from the basket.
He shot 66.2 percent from within three feet of the basket last season, but made just 28.8 percent from three to 10 feet. He was at 30.9 percent from 10 to 16 feet, and 27.3 percent from 16 to the three-point line.
Making a better shooter
Noel attempts at least 500 jumpers per day with Carroll and Driscoll closely monitoring everything, from his hand placement to his feet, before his weight training and individual drills. Sixers coach Brett Brown and assistant coach/player development director Billy Lange are consulted about the drills the team wants him to perform during his stay in Newport. Brown even attended one of the workouts for a firsthand glimpse.
The work has resulted in an adjustment to his shooting form. Noel slightly moved the placement of his right hand, which he uses to shoot. But the major change came in his left, or guide, hand.
In the past, Noel's left hand dominated the ball, sitting on top or on the side of it when he shot.
"Just getting my left hand off the ball," Noel said of the adjustment. "During the season, you can't really work on it as much as you want to and fix the little things. It's the season, you don't want to mess with anything."
But so far, his coaches say Noel has improved quicker than expected.
Carroll, who is known as a skill-development coach, mentioned how he showed Noel an adjustment to make on his hands during his shot. The coach said Noel made incredible improvement after an hour on something that usually takes weeks, or sometimes months, to improve.
The real test will be how Noel performs during an 82-game season. Even that might not be the true test. It could takes several offseasons of hard work to show drastic in-game improvement.
But will he continue to shoot the way Carroll taught him? Or will he revert to his old form, possibly leading to continued shooting woes?
"We worked hard this summer. I think I'm in a good position to help this team move in the right direction," said Noel, whose goal is to represent the Eastern Conference in February's All-Star Game in Toronto. "Individually, I think I've worked on the things I've needed to work on.
"I just need to continue to show potential and continue to start producing at a high level."