Nerlens Noel peers down at the 2013 NBA Draft (Mike Stobe/Getty).
This June's NBA draft was notable for its largely unpredictable lottery, in which an absence of surefire stars caused various non-playoff teams to defy expectations and make several shocking selections. Yet, even given the character of the night, Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel's slide from potential top pick to No. 6 overall (where he was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans and then traded to the Philadelphia 76ers) qualified as a big surprise. Although an ACL injury suffered in mid-February made him a less enticing prospect than when he first started his lone season in Lexington, Noel was still expected to be one of the first picks.
Like many players before him, Noel is approaching his drop as an opportunity rather than a bad omen. As tweeted by Pablo S. Torre of ESPN (via SLAM), Noel will wear No. 5 to note the number of teams who passed on him in the draft.Noel is not the first player to make a source of motivation quite so public. Throughout his career, Gilbert Arenas wore zero on his jersey to remind himself of the relative lack of scholarship attention he got from big-game college programs, the teams that opted not to select him in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft, and any other doubters he encountered before or after he made the league. His jersey number was even made the subject of his biggest commercial for Adidas.
From the outside, this can all look a little ridiculous. At a certain point, a large enough number of people started loving Arenas that his jersey number ceased to have the same connection to his public identity. For that matter, Noel very easily could have used his slide down draft boards as motivation without putting No. 5 on his uniform. (It also would have made more sense to use No. 6, since the Pelicans traded him, but Julius Erving probably would have objected to his number coming down from the rafters.)
However, this take assumes that these choices are governed by external logic, not the very specific motivations of athletes who've spent most of their lives in ultra-competitive atmospheres. Every player in this draft has likely concocted some kind of rationale to support the belief that they've been disrespected. This goes for people taken ahead of Noel, too — top pick Anthony Bennett can say that everyone thought he shouldn't have been picked first, Cody Zeller can claim that most pundits thought Noel should have been taken ahead of him, etc. High-level athletes are capable of using any slight as a boost to achieve their goals.
Cynics may choose to perceive Noel's particular choice as a grab for attention, but it's more likely just the option he settled on to motivate himself as best he can. It's ultimately a harmless decision, perhaps more likely to be taken by the general public as a tribute to Kevin Garnett than a statement of purpose. It matters because of what it means to Noel, not to everyone else.