Bucks Back When ... David Noel

David Noel is making the most of his
rookie season with the Bucks after
being drafted last summer.
(Getty Images)

March 7, 2007
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

As "Bucks Back When ..." revisits the routes Milwaukee Bucks players and coaches traveled to reach the National Basketball Association, the easiest one to find might be David Noel's.

That is because, prior to his arrival in Milwaukee for his first NBA training camp last fall, Noel had spent all of his 22 years living in North Carolina.

Somewhere between his birthplace of Durham and nearby Chapel Hill, Noel found a fork in the road five years ago and made a bold decision -- one that would have a major impact on his life. There may be some who second-guessed that decision, but Noel himself does not regret the road he chose.

The fact that Noel opted to attend the University of North Carolina -- the arch-rival of his hometown Duke University -- was enough to put him on the proverbial road less traveled.

What truly made his choice so rare and so bold, though, is that he turned down a scholarship offer to play football for the Tar Heels and paid his way into UNC to become a walk-on with the basketball team.

Noel was a standout wide receiver on the football team at Southern Durham High School -- good enough to receive Division-I scholarship offers from UNC and several other colleges. Many considered football either his best sport or the one in which he possessed the greatest potential to become a professional prospect one day.

Noel may very well be reviewing a rewarding career on the Tar Heels' gridiron and his rookie season in the National Football League right now had he not been involved in one of those "right place, right time" recruiting episodes.

Fred Quartlebaum, an assistant to then-UNC head coach Matt Doherty, visited Southern Durham High one night to scout a post player by the name of Anthony King. Noel's coach, Levi Beckwith, gave Quartlebaum the heads-up that he had a player that Carolina ought to be checking out.

David Noel had a triple-double that night, and a short time after that, Doherty offered him a roster spot as a walk-on, promising that a scholarship would become available the following year.

Like so many North Carolinians, Noel had become a Tar Heels devotee at a young age, and Doherty’s offer was one he could not pass up. He will never forget the thrill of the whole experience.

"Words can't describe it," Noel said. "There were so many emotions running through me when I made that decision. And they were all Carolina blue."

Noel rewarded Doherty’s confidence in him by averaging 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds as a freshman. And he enjoyed the finest hour of his frosh campaign right in his own backyard, stepping in for an injured Sean May to collect 19 points –- his regular-season high –- in a nationally televised game at Duke. He later posted his first double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds in a National Invitation Tournament win over DePaul.

Following Noel’s freshman season, Doherty resigned and was eventually succeeded as UNC’s head coach by Roy Williams. Noel had to prove himself all over again just to secure that promise of a scholarship offer, but he did much more than that.

Undaunted by a thumb injury that sidelined him for six games, he averaged 21.3 minutes in 24 appearances as a sophomore. He contributed 5.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per outing and shot .562 from the floor.

In his junior campaign, he played in all 37 of UNC’s games – most often at small forward after being needed at power forward and center during his first two years -- and was an invaluable reserve on the Tar Heels’ national championship team.

And after the Tar Heels had cut down the nets at the Edward R. Jones Dome in St. Louis, Noel took the podium alongside Roy Williams, gazed up at the JumboTron and watched the replay of himself dunking during the showing of “One Shining Moment.”

As Noel told Adam Lucas of Tar Heel Monthly, “It wasn’t until that moment that I really understood. That’s when I knew why I had picked basketball over football. There are always those lingering doubts when you make a big decision like that. You always live with your what-ifs. Winning the championship, though, that made me understand why everything had happened the way it happened.”

After championship teammates Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants left UNC to become first-round NBA draft picks, Noel was left to hold down the fort at Chapel Hill. He responded by averaging 12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, earning second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors and first-team all-ACC defensive team accolades.

Noel guided the young Tar Heels to a 12-4 ACC finish, and his senior leadership qualities did not go unnoticed by his coach.

“He tried to help our team win on and off the court as well as anyone I have ever been around in my life,” Williams said. “I was very fortunate to coach him. I’m better today because I coached him.”

During his years at UNC, Noel joined a fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. And he became a member of the Tar Heel Basketball Fraternity, too.

North Carolina has sent 72 players to either the National Basketball Association or the old American Basketball Association. There are currently 12 ex-Tar Heels on NBA rosters. And during the summertime, they celebrate homecoming on the courts of Chapel Hill.

“With all the NBA guys coming back —- there are so many of them —- it’s definitely a plus,” Noel said. “Guys like Rasheed Wallace, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison … when they come back and play with us, they show us the ropes. Last year, they made us play with the NBA ball when they were there. It was fun.

“Most of the time, we have two courts running. You have about 20 guys, and whoever loses goes to the losers’ court, and the winners just flip-flop.”

Noel had the opportunity to meet Michael Jordan during one of those summer sessions.

“When I was there, he came back, but he didn’t play,” Noel said. “He came out and shot a couple of jumpers with us. He shot a few half-court shots and bet on it a couple of times -- that’s Jordan for you.

“That was really the only time he came back while I was there. It was in my junior year, the national championship year. It was great to see him.”

Though Noel never got to play against “Air Jordan,” he did go on to share a distinction with him: He became a slam dunk contest winner, besting the likes of Cincinnati’s James White and Memphis’ Rodney Carney during the week leading up to the 2006 NCAA Final Four.

More importantly in the scope of his career, Noel was rated the No. 1 athlete out of the 81 participants in the NBA’s Pre-Draft Camp in Orlando, Fla. last spring.

In five tests of athleticism through which the NBA puts draft prospects, Noel earned a high score of 310.7689, outdistancing the runnerup by 21.4667. Running, jumping and agility were tested by measuring vertical jumps (no-step and maximum), counting bench presses of 185 pounds and timing of lane agility drills and 3/4-court sprints. Noel jumped 34-5 and 38-5 for fourth and ninth; bench-pressed 185 pounds 20 times for sixth; his lane drill of 10.54 placed him fourth; and his sprint of 3.07 seconds left him just one-hundredth of a second out of first. Duly impressed, the Bucks made the 6-foot-6-inch, 230-pound forward the 39th selection in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft.

"We really feel like we've got the best athlete in the draft," Bucks General Manager Larris Harris said afterward. "He is a guy that went to Orlando and tested against all of the guys there, all of the lottery picks and all of those guys, and tested out to be the No. 1 athlete in the draft." Coach Terry Stotts concurred with Harris.

"He gives us what we were looking for in the draft: an athletic wing player," Stotts added. "He is an athletic specimen. He's a smart player and he's been well-coached. He's a guy who we had targeted from the beginning."

A year ago, Noel was the veteran leader. Now he is the rookie. And he sees to be adjusting quite well.

Noel appeared in 47 of the Bucks’ first 60 games, averaging 1.8 points per outing. His rookie highlight thus far came Nov. 22, 2006, when he collected 11 points and seven assists in a 98-94 win over Philadelphia. Much of his introduction into the NBA comes behind the scenes, but he was versed ahead of time about life as a rookie.

“We’ve carried bags, we’ve put up shoes, we’ve brought doughnuts to practice,” he said. “There’s a bunch of stuff we’ve had to do. But it’s all in fun. The guys don’t mean any harm by it. It’s something we’re willing to do as rookies.

“We’re just glad to be called rookies.”