Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.
A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.
The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup.
“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”
In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points.
A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear.
“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.”
After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three.
“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”
Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.
“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”
It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games.
Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.
Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.
Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that.
“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”
After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night.
“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”
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