Nerlens Noel talks Knicks wins, Tom Thibodeau, new culture within MSG | The Putback with Ian Begley

The Knicks are streaking at the right time and Knicks center Nerlens Noel sees the resilience within the team's locker room. On this week's episode of The Putback with Ian Begley presented by 888sport, SNY NBA Insider Ian Begley and Chris Williamson are joined by special guest Nerlens Noel to talk the state of the team, the impact of Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff, his viral blocks and how he envisions Madison Square Garden if the Knicks make a playoff run. Ian and Chris also discuss Zion Williamson's comments about loving to play in MSG and if the Knicks have a shot to get the former No. 1 pick. Ian also explains the impact of the Knicks veterans and how their recent play is guiding the team upward in the standings. All that and more on this week's episode of The Putback with Ian Begley presented by 888sport. Watch more of The Putback: About The Putback: The Putback will star SNY NBA Insider Ian Begley, who will be joined each week by a different guest from the Knicks and the NBA, ranging from former players and coaches to national writers to Knicks celebrity fans. Meanwhile, Ian will also answer questions from “Knicks fans” who range in personality as well as opinions and philosophies on how to improve their beloved franchise. About SNY: SNY is an award winning, multiplatform regional sports network serving millions across the country through unparalleled coverage of all things New York sports. SNY delivers the most comprehensive access to all of the Tri-State area's professional and collegiate sports teams through nightly sports and entertainment programs. is the "go-to" digital communal home for New York sports fans to get succinct, easy-to-read updates, video highlights and features, recaps, news, opinion, rumors, insight and fan reaction on their favorite New York sports teams. Check out more from SNY at ​ Subscribe to SNY on YouTube: Like SNY on Facebook:​ Follow SNY on Twitter: ​ Follow SNY on Instagram:

Video Transcript


IAN BEGLEY: Welcome to "The Putback" presented by 888sport. Bet $20 on either the Knicks or the Nets and get 88 bucks in free bets by using the promo code SNY88. I'm Ian Begley here with Chris Williamson. Chris, what do we have for the baseline this week?

CHRIS WILLIAMSON: Well, Ian, during the Knicks improbable season, a lot of attention has been placed on Julius Randle and some of the younger Knicks stars. But we should give the veterans some shine-- playing important roles and occasionally stepping up for incredible performances. So what guys have really stood out to you?

IAN BEGLEY: I'm going Derrick Rose because when he was healthy, pre-COVID, he showed you all he can do by being a closer for this club. And now more recently, he's starting to get his rhythm back and starting to get his timing back and his conditioning back after that bout with COVID-19. You saw it in the game against the Pelicans. He was phenomenal down the stretch. So he's one.

And then I go Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks-- Burks off the bench, Bullock in the starting lineup. They've both just been really solid. Bullock both defensively and knocking down 3-point shots. Burks as a scorer, particularly late in games. And they've earned the trust of this coaching staff over the course of the season.

And that's what you'd expect because if veterans play well, coaches are going to trust them. But, to me, that's significant moving forward here because both players are free agents in the off season. And I think the idea that they've earned the trust of this coaching staff is significant because it could play a role in how the Knicks feel about bringing both players back.

And then, Chris, got to go Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel. Mitchell Robinson going down with significant injuries-- two of them-- over the course of the season. Nerlens Noel steps in as the starter. Taj Gibson steps in as the backup. They're both phenomenal. The Knicks' defense wouldn't be where it is today without the play of Noel and Taj Gibson.

CHRIS WILLIAMSON: This week on "The Putback," we're thrilled to be joined by Knicks' Center Nerlens Noel. Since taking over as the starter on February 13, Noel leads the team in blocks and offensive rebounds and is second in steals. Now in his seventh season, Noel's blocking abilities has made him one of the league's top defenders this season.

NERLENS NOEL: That's crazy. I was just talking about that today-- about filling up the stadium-- during treatment with a couple guys. Theo and Quick-- we were talking about that and how contagious it becomes off just the fueling energy through the city of New York.

So I really just can't wait for that. Hopefully, through closer to the playoffs, you know, I think if they upped the capacity a little bit, that'd be great if it's safe. But, man, I'm ready. I'm ready to fill that thing up and, you know, get it rocking like I know it can be.

IAN BEGLEY: The Knicks have the second best opponent field goal percentage at the rim since you've been starting. And you are second in defensive plus-minus for all players this season. So is there anything different about your approach or your timing when you're defending the rim or defending in the paint, the pick and rolls this season compared to years past?

NERLENS NOEL: Just definitely think I've been a little more aggressive-- [INAUDIBLE] playing, you know, more at the rim. And I've done it really all my career. This team is really shaped, you know, to have an aggressive defensive approach. And guys playing, communicating, running around, switching. So it definitely-- just how the team is set up, it helped me out.

IAN BEGLEY: I think the Knicks have the third best defensive rating in the games you've started. And the Knicks also, I think, have the third best opponent field goal percentage in the games that you've started. Now, I know like that training camp was shorter than usual. And because of COVID, you guys haven't practiced as much as you would in a normal season. How did this defense come together so quickly?

NERLENS NOEL: You know, I think it was just purely effort. You know, defense is everything. You know, if you want to do it, you can get it done. And I think-- Coach Thibodeau, with the mindset he was bringing from the jump-- that that would be our focus through training camp.

And, you know, offense-- we'll pick up throughout the season. You know, our calling card has been defense-- something we can rely on. Something that's helping to keep us in the games, competitive. And, you know, I think it has done a great job for us to, you know, have that strong foundation.


You know, everybody has each other's back. You know, the resilience factor is major in this locker room. And obviously, it's instilled at a great force through Coach Thibs. I mean, he's an East Coast dude. And, you know, he knows what New York is about. You know, he definitely puts 110% into us, making sure we're keeping things tight, keeping things proper, and making the right plays, making the right reads, playing the right way period. So, you know, if you give into this game and you respect it, you'll get everything-- you'll get everything back. And, you know, Coach Thibs is a big believer in that. And so am I.

CHRIS WILLIAMSON: And one of the guys that helps the team become, you know, really unified and together is Kenny Payne, who you have ties to. And a lot of other players on the Knicks do as well. Going back to your days at Kentucky, what was your relationship like with him at Kentucky? And how has he helped you at this particular level?

NERLENS NOEL: You know, when we first got to Kentucky, he was a little-- I mean, it was always a great relationship. But he definitely pushed me to new barriers and boundaries that, you know, I needed to get to at 18, 19 years old. A loving relationship of just-- you know, kind of like a father son. You know, he's always just had my back, and I good advice that I needed. You know, whether-- you know, probably can't repeat it on here.

But he definitely done always gave me that extra, you know, little budge I need to take care of my business the right way. And now, having him here full circle-- and obviously, we see it with Julius as well-- what he's been able to do. And obviously, that's a lot of credit to Julius himself. But Kenny Payne just definitely brings that extra mentality and edge to really make a player what he wants to be.

IAN BEGLEY: With Kenny, is he the same Kenny Payne with the Knicks as he was with Kentucky?

NERLENS NOEL: [CHUCKLES] Yeah, yeah, that's a great one. You know, it's definitely a unique transition. But because college is so different, you know, we just know what to recruit and everything. But Kenny Payne is who he is. And that's what set him apart from anybody. He could succeed really at any level just off being himself, you know, bringing his aggressive mentality of getting someone better.

And I'm sure he's always had it all his life through Louisville days and the NBA. And that's why he's always stayed so consistent with, you know, being a guy that's known so well to help guys develop not just their game but mentally as a man off the court.


ZION WILLIAMSON: I mean, I'm glad you asked that, actually. It's amazing. New York is the mecca of basketball. And this is my first time playing here in the pros. And I love playing here. I think-- outside of New Orleans, obviously-- I think this might be my favorite place to play, outside of New Orleans. I can't even lie to you. I can't lie to you.


CHRIS WILLIAMSON: You just heard Zion right there. He seemed very, very giddy about playing at Madison Square Garden. And Knicks fans, obviously, dreamed about getting him recently in the draft.

IAN BEGLEY: I think, Knick fans, if you want to hold your breath for another five years and wait and hope that Zion Williamson comes to New York, go ahead. My advice for the Knick fan that's been paying attention for the last two decades, has lived through this team being bad on the court mostly, going through some embarrassing things off the court-- I think just live in the moment.

Enjoy what you're seeing right now. Enjoy the way this group-- Tom Thibodeau, Julius Randle, and everybody else-- is playing, competing for a playoff spot. A million things can happen between now and then. I just wouldn't-- wouldn't cross my fingers or hold my breath if I'm a Knick fan.

CHRIS WILLIAMSON: So you know the Knicks had an incredible defensive performance in Dallas last week. But one highlight really stood out. Can you take us through that monster block you had on Dorian Finney-Smith?

NERLENS NOEL: You know, just a late game and you know fourth quarter obviously you know all my life you know for anybody any competitive play you might just have different type of endorphins that release. Then I saw Dorian come down the lane of the rotation swing from Luka. And he's obviously going to draw a lot of attention. So I was ready for any penetration to the basket. You know, the key thing is I always be the second to jump because you never know what they're going to do until they're actually doing it.

So I waited for him to go up with the one hand clean. And I just went and got it. You know what I mean? That's what I've been doing all my life, especially in those situations. You're always taking pride in securing games defensively. You know, just to have that moment there and all that-- you know, it felt great. You can definitely help my team get that five in a row.

IAN BEGLEY: When you go up and you go challenge those shots-- the dunk attempts-- aggressively like you do all the time, basically, can you just not even think about the idea of ending up on the wrong end of it? Because you know with social media, if that were to happen, those things go viral. Your block obviously goes viral. But if he dunks it, it's going to go viral too. Do you not even think about that possibility?


NERLENS NOEL: Yeah, I mean, I'm not going to act like I don't. Like, I'm definitely aware of who and where and the timing and who can do what, you know, and how well they can do it. My ratio is pretty good, though. I don't really-- most of the time, I'm just going for it if I know what's really going on. But my mindset is to protect the rim at any means necessary.

IAN BEGLEY: I'm sure fans have their own opinions. But do you-- could you rank one over the other between Brandon and Dorian Finney-Smith? Or is that not something that you get into?

NERLENS NOEL: Probably for the moment-- being in the fourth quarter-- you know what I mean? But I feel like I had a few better blocks than that. But this season, I'd definitely say those are probably in the top five this season, especially the most memorable top three, easy.

IAN BEGLEY: Will you ever remind a guy? Like, when you get him at the rim, will you remind him the next time you see him or, like, casually on the court? Or do you let it go?

NERLENS NOEL: Oh, no, I be joking with them all the time. After that Dorian Finney-Smith-- after the last one, I told him, just start working on the floaters because you aint going to land all the way there.


But that's my good friend, though. So, we good for that.

IAN BEGLEY: Nerlens, thanks so much for joining us, and good luck the rest of the way. For Nerlens and Chris, I'm Ian. We'll see you next week on "The Putback."


Which Knicks veteran impressed you the most during the team's seven game winning streak? Go to for this week's fan choice presented by 888sport. Bet $20 on the Knicks or Nets and get 88 bucks in free bets using promo code SNY88.