Last season, Obadiah Noel spotted up for a corner three and waited for teammate Breein Tyree to pass him the ball. When Tyree turned it over, three players were ahead of Noel, but he sprinted the entire length of the court for a chase-down block attempt. The 905 were up 13 points mid-way through the fourth quarter. Even though Fort Wayne got the bucket, it’s the small effort here that counted.
Recently-appointed Phoenix Suns assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, a bastion of toughness, raved about Noel’s defense at the start of the 2021-22 season. “I’m going to go out on a limb here,” he paused. “[Obadiah] could possibly be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.”
That came from a person who coached Gary Payton II, the previous season’s DPOY. Mutombo continued, “He wants to defend, has the heart to defend and we just gotta teach him the little nuances that are gonna help him do that at the highest level, where he’s not fouling but he’s making people extremely uncomfortable.”
Noel’s court time dissipated as the 2021-22 season progressed, but he consistently fought and played over screens and guarded mismatches. When taller and bigger players would try to bully him down low, his strong core and base kept them out.
Buzzwords like ‘mental toughness’ are often thrown around without being properly defined, so let me spell out how Noel refined his key character trait over time. His mental toughness started with him honestly looking at himself in the mirror – he had the self-awareness and humility to identify his weaknesses and accept them. Then, he had the grit to go to work consistently to improve them.
In an interview with Jersey Talk, Noel reflected on his college freshman shyness and how he needed to put some muscle on his then-spaghetti arms. “Just going into [my freshman season], I was already skinny and frail, so it was tough,” he said and added, “The biggest thing for me was my weight. I was mad skinny, I was small, so after my freshman season, I just stayed in Massachusetts.” He continued, “I ain’t even go home, so I was just out there lifting.”
“I was just playing off my athleticism and my strength,” said Noel of his sophomore season. But that didn’t get him any all-conference accolades. So he developed a jump shot before his junior season and then added a post-up game going into his senior season. He made piecemeal improvements at his school overlooked in the American East conference. And when could have jumped ship, he decided to lock in.
”I’m a mentally strong person. Most people transfer … from [American East] to Cal State, Georgia and Miami,” said Noel, but he stuck with the only school to offer him a scholarship.
Noel’s 6’4’’ frame took time and commitment to fill out. Kristen Mitchell, associate athletic trainer from UMass Lowell, referred to his progress as “quite an amazing transformation.” She witnessed the work Noel put in behind the scenes – the two worked on his hip mobility, ensuring he could get low in a defensive position and remain mobile.
“If you’re going to get low on a defensive stance, you’re either going to stand at your hips and knees or you’re going to bend forward at your trunk – and that’s what puts undue pressure on your lumbar spine,” said Mitchell. UMass Lowell played positionless basketball, so Noel had to learn how to compete against bigger and stronger players.
As a first year pro, he was able to keep G Leaguers out of the paint due to the hip mobility and core strength he developed at UMass Lowell. Mitchell attests to the dedication Noel had put into anti-rotation exercises like planks and landmine presses.
Sundays were supposed to be off-days. “Those were the days I’d come in and do treatment,” said Mitchell. “And I kid you not,” Mitchell said laughing, “He was always there. I could always count on him to be there. A lot of the times it was only him in there for treatment on Sundays, so he certainly took care of his body.”
The success of the 905’s development system need not be repeated here. However, Noel is a case study into how the 905 also unearths fringe G League players and develops them into high-level pros. Noel made the roster as an Open Tryout player – spots often reserved for end-of-bench guys – and used that opportunity to flourish under Mutombo’s wing.
Noel not only proved himself on the defensive end of the floor, but dropped 19 points against the eventual 2021 Showcase Cup champions Delaware Blue Coats and 28 against Fort Wayne in the regular season. For comparison, 28 points is not a feat accomplished by past Open Tryout players like Myck Kabongo, Duane Notice (career high: 25 points), Nicholas Baer or Richard Amardi.
Noel has maintained a low profile this offseason – he hasn’t played in NBA Summer League or the CEBL – but he’s surely on the verge of signing somewhere soon. Whether he comes back this 2022-23 season to join Jalen Lecque remains a mystery, but even if he doesn’t, the 905 unearthed another underdog from a small school and turned him into a winner.