Shot-blocking center Norvel Pelle only became a Knick on April 2, but he has been immersed in New York City for the past three years while living in Astoria, Queens, with a cousin.
Pelle, who was born in Antigua, moved with his family to St. Croix at 3 years old and then to Southern California, is hopeful he can keep the Queens-to-Manhattan commute going for two more seasons. The 6-foot-10 Pelle has been back at the Tarrytown campus this week, working out with a hodgepodge of young Knicks.
Pelle’s contract for next season is non-guaranteed and the Knicks have a team option for 2022-23.
In his first comments as a Knick, Pelle told The Post: “Queens is like a dream spot for me. I grew up in California and it was my transition to another coast. Honestly, I love New York and that’s why I almost went to St. John’s.’’
After he attended three high schools in and near Los Angeles, academic credits prevented Pelle from attending St. John’s, and he traveled a circuitous route to the NBA. He played in Taiwan and Italy and even had a stint in Beirut, landing Lebanese citizenship while there.
“Amazing fans, amazing city,’’ Pelle said. “A lot of people sleep on Lebanon, but I really liked it.’’
At age 28, his mission is to become center Mitchell Robinson’s backup next season and no longer an NBA vagabond. He played briefly for the Nets and the Kings this past season and for the 76ers in 2019-20.
“I love the Knicks — the whole organization, ’’ Pelle said. “Whatever role. Coming off the bench is fine with me. However they want to use me. As long as I get used.’’
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau likes his centers to be defense-oriented and protect the rim. To move far in the Eastern Conference, teams will need traditional big guys because of Hawks center Clint Capela, who obliterated the Knicks on the glass and helped guide Atlanta to the conference finals.
“[Capela] was definitely a factor in the series,’’ Pelle said. “It felt like they played a little bit harder, a little more ready to go. They came in with aggressiveness. We did, too. They just had a little more.’’
After joining the Knicks in early April, Pelle played in nine games. One of them came versus the Hawks, when he stepped up to defend against a penetrating Trae Young, who sprained in his ankle stepping on the back of Pelle’s foot. Pelle said he wouldn’t have been in a such good position two years ago, but is reading defenses better.
In the playoff series against the Hawks, Pelle didn’t get a chance because he was still too new. Center Nerlens Noel, however, proved undersized against Capela and gimpy on a sore ankle. Noel is a free agent and likely will get an offer sweeter than the Knicks are willing to match.
“I was definitely on call,’’ Pelle said of his playoff status. “It was game by game. Each game making sure Noel was good enough. I was there in case of emergency. I was prepared to go.’’
Blocking shots has always come easily to Pelle.
“Honestly, natural instinct,’’ Pelle said. “It’s never anything I worked on. It was always natural. But now I’m reading the game. I feel like just understanding the game better now, able to break things down. See plays before it happens as I’ve watched more basketball.’’
One NBA scout said Pelle “looks like he’s reading angles better when switching on pick-and-rolls. He’s avoiding foul trouble that way. We are talking about a guy who was [the] No. 1-ranked center in the country out of high school.’’
The Knicks also have been impressed during practices that Pelle has a competent midrange jumper. Noel never showed an ability to shoot beyond the restricted area. Pelle thinks his offensive game gets overshadowed.
“I can hit a 3 if I need to,’’ Pelle said. “That’s off reputation more so because I’ve focused on the defensive side. I’m trying to be more offensive. I can shoot a 15-footer for sure, but bread and butter is on defense.’’
Another factor is the way Pelle appeared to fit into the close-knit locker room. He looked to be one of the biggest cheerleaders on the bench.
“The thing about this team, everyone is welcomed,’’ Pelle said. “Nobody’s on their high horse. Everyone understands their position and what he brings to the table out there while having fun. Julius [Randle] was definitely the leader on and off the court but laid back. Taj [Gibson] was the old head. DRose [Derrick Rose] was mellow and down to earth. RJ [Barrett] is funny, cool people, but Theo [Pinson] was the funniest.’’
There was no question the respect NBA Coach of the Year Thibodeau commanded. Pelle liked Thibodeau’s old-school toughness, saying he reminded him of Charles “Poncho’’ Perry, his AAU coach.
“[Thibodeau’s] terminology, his positioning on defense, angles, how stern and hard-nosed and no-nonsense he was,’’ Pelle said. “I really liked it. That type of coach pushes everybody to their limit to be better, trickles down. Coach gets on someone’s case, everyone’s like, ‘They don’t want to be that person so they’re working harder.’ ”
It didn’t take long for Pelle to become a true Knick. In his debut, he crashed to the court after laying the ball in on his first possession and dislocated his finger. Trainers taped the mangled digits and Pelle blocked two shots on the other end.
“It was nerve-racking at first,’’ Pelle said. “A few players later, I’m on the floor, my finger pointed in the opposite direction. But I had enough adrenaline going. It was fun. That’s going into the books for me.’’