Less than 45 seconds had elapsed since tip-off in a rivalry game between Fayette County and Sandy Creek, and Noah Gurley had already blocked a shot and hammered down a dunk that brought a sea of fans to their feet.
There’s no hiding for Gurley, the 6-foot-7 senior forward for the Fayette County Tigers and Furman commit who’s undoubtedly the star player on most courts he steps onto. The talent and the size have always been there, but once Gurley started putting the work in, he transformed into a highly coveted and dominant player who’s tough to defend no matter where he is on the floor.
When Gurley was in eighth grade, he would attend high school games with his father, Eric, and sit in the very back. Even then, he couldn’t hide. Fayette County head coach Andre Flynn noticed the tall, slender middle schooler and hoped he was headed to Fayette County High School in his future.
“He’s coming to Fayette, right?” Flynn remembers asking.
Thankfully for Flynn, Gurley found himself on the Tigers’ roster the following season, but he was still far from reaching his potential.
Alongside teammates Austin Nesmith and Phillip Young, the trio admittedly coasted through their first two years in high school by relying mainly on talent to get by.
“Ninth and tenth grade, just like [Gurley], my head wasn’t in it either, but he turned me into more of a competitor and made me better,” Nesmith said of Gurley.
During the summer between sophomore and junior year, as Gurley grew both physically and in maturity, he began to realize he possessed a gift he didn’t want to let go to waste. It wasn’t long before Gurley took advantage of his intangibles and worked to perfect his craft, giving him the confidence to be able to match up with any player he faced.
Nesmith credits one of the Fayette County coaches, Quincy Carruthers, as someone who helped get the three now-seniors into shape, both on the court and in the classroom, during the midway point of their high school careers. For Gurley, the change was noticeable in both areas.
“He had to learn how to go hard. He was a little fragile,” Flynn said. “Just by getting older, he was going to get a little bit better. Then he began to work a little bit more. His work ethic got a little bit better.”
Flynn said Gurley went from averaging two to four points per game his first two years on the team to 18 points per game in his junior season. In addition, Flynn said Gurley is a 4.0 student, proving to his teammates, as well as other students, what is possible with a strong work ethic. Nesmith said Gurley is a guy who wants to be the best at everything he does.
While Gurley’s work ethic improved as he transitioned from underclassman to upperclassman, he continued to get bigger, which intimidated Fayette County’s opponents. Young recalls a game against Henry County earlier this season when Gurley scored 30 points and 12 rebounds, imposing his will on an undermanned opponent through four quarters of action. By the end of the game, the players didn’t even want to go near him with the ball, knowing what the result would be.
Young said it’s not the first time Gurley has scared off his opposition.
“Most of the little guards are scared to take it in because they see him there, and they know he’s going to block it,” Young said.
It’s no wonder where Gurley gets his height from. His mother Nadine is 5-foot-11, and Eric is 6-foot-4. Eric’s playing career at Valdosta State was cut short when he tore his patellar tendon twice. While Noah’s father didn’t make it through college with a clean bill of health, it doesn’t stop him from believing his son can achieve greatness in college.
“He just wants me to stay confident and be myself because he knows I can make an impact at the next level,” Gurley said.
Furman University started recruiting Gurley at the end of his junior season, once he began playing on the AAU circuit. He was also recruited by other mid-major Division-I schools such as UNC-Greensboro and Wofford, but Furman was there from the beginning. He liked the coaching staff and the campus in Greenville, South Carolina, so he made it official before beginning his senior season of basketball.
While Gurley is a leader on the team, he’s bolstered by the help of his teammates who all add something different to the equation. Nesmith is the outside shooter, Young is, as Flynn calls it, the “slasher,” and Gurley is the finisher. But that doesn’t mean Nesmith can’t drive it or that Young and Gurley can’t hit the 3-pointer.
“We all just feed on each other,” Nesmith said.
The three often drill each other in one-on-one in their free time, pushing one another because they all know what the other is thinking. The seniors have become accustomed to each other’s games since well before they put on Fayette County jerseys. As a result, they have all been forced to develop a versatile game to keep the others guessing when they match up for a competitive game of one-on-one, or even horse.
Gurley’s versatility was on display during an Elite Eight game on March 1 against Carver High School. As the seconds wound down in the first half, Gurley was entrusted to take a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, which he sank as time expired.
Late in the fourth quarter, he found comfort around the rim, curling and twisting his way with ease to the backboard, where he was able to let the ball roll off his fingertips right into the hoop. On one well-placed alley-oop, Gurley flushed down the shot, giving his team enough of a cushion to punch its ticket to the Final Four in Columbus.
“I can do it all,” Gurley said.
Gurley aspires to be like Kevin Durant or Paul George, and he sees aspects of his game that are similar to the way each of those NBA stars play the game. For one, Gurley’s arms hang almost to his knees, but he also draws his own comparison to Durant because he has ability to score from anywhere on the court. He looks up to George because he’s strong on the defensive end of the court too.
Still, Gurley has a long journey if he wants to be as prolific as either of the aforementioned professionals. While Furman is D-I, he’s going to need to be called upon early and often to make a name for himself on a national scale. Gurley knows it’s a challenge, but he’s risen to local stardom in a matter of two years. If he can do that, he believes the next step is becoming a well-known commodity outside of the arena he’s playing in.
“I just need to find a way to get my name out there,” Gurley said.
Gurley the underclassman wasn’t prepared to make a difference as a college basketball player, but the new and improved Gurley — the one who learned as a rising junior that he could be great if he puts the work in — has shown he can accomplish more than he originally thought possible when he was sitting in the back row of the Fayette County gym with his father.
While there is always a sense of unknown with what the future holds, one thing is for sure. Gurley has found his purpose.
“If I didn’t have basketball in my life, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” Gurley said.