A Kentucky fanatic's take on Nerlens Noel

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A Kentucky fanatic's take on Nerlens Noel

When the Sixers made their draft-night trade for Nerlens Noel, the sixth overall pick by the New Orleans Pelicans, my phone blew up. I was flooded with tweets, texts, calls and emails. People I knew in Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland and anywhere else I have lived, know two things: I am a huge Kentucky Wildcats fan, and I live in Philadelphia.

So after the initial excitement of the Sixers getting a UK player, and one of his caliber, I had to think about it. Was this a good deal for the Sixers? I mean, they did just trade away their young, all-star point guard. And they are taking a bit of a gamble on a big man with knee issues. We saw that last year. No need to rehash the Andrew Bynum debacle.

This is different.

I like this move for the Sixers, in terms of upside. There was a reason that he was projected as a No. 1 pick. He has the tools. He has the ability. And he’s only going to improve.

Noel turned 19 just a couple of months before the draft. Think about that. This kid burst onto the scene only a few years ago. He was reclassified for the recruiting process, and it wasn’t until after his junior year that people really started to take notice. He was projected as a lottery pick at that point. He was 16.  

Now, I know the arguments: Noel is coming off a serious knee injury, he isn’t an offensive machine and he’s undersized.

My answer to those arguments: That’s fine. Yes, Noel is coming off an injury, but Bynum, like some other highly-touted big men, has chronic knee issues. Noel never had an issue with his knees. It was an ACL tear. While those are never great, they are certainly not the fearsome career-enders that they once were.

Noel’s been rehabbing and has been quite diligent about it, according to the folks I’ve talked to in Kentucky and in Alabama, where the surgery took place. The knee injury recovery spectrum spans Adrian Peterson and Derrick Rose. I’m optimistic and am leaning toward the Peterson end of the spectrum.

As for his offensive game, he’s not going to average 25 points, but it's not as poor as you think. Noel has quick feet, especially for a big man. That enables him to be active around the basket and get those put-backs, layups and bunny shots. That’s where a majority of his points are going to come from. If I told you that he’d average 12 rebounds, 10 points and three blocks a game, you’d probably take that. I know I would.

And besides, he’s in the game to be a defensive juggernaut, a disruptor around the basket and to rebound. He does all of those things very, very well. He has excellent footwork, a nose for defense and is a natural shot blocker. It’s not a stretch when you read that NBA team officials say that he’s the purest shot-blocking big man they’ve seen in well over a decade. It’s a true artform and skill. Shot blocking is an instinct; it's about being in the right place at the right time. Noel is usually in that place at that time.

And yes, he is undersized. He played the season, before the ACL tear, at 6-foot-10 and around 225-230 pounds. That is still a little smaller than ideal, but he’ll bulk up. Plus, the days of the big, lumbering center -- like Shaq -- are over. “They just don’t make ’em like they used to,” so to speak.

Beyond the three issues just addressed, some have argued Noel fell to sixth on draft night because of his entourage. I talked with a number of reporters who have covered Noel from day one on UK’s campus all the way through the draft. Some of them chalk up these rumblings to sour grapes by agents he didn’t hire, and other reporters I spoke with have no idea where this information was coming from.

To quote one of the guys who’s covered Noel for a year now: “He was a bit of a loner, but not in a bad way. He liked to do his own thing. He would just show up unannounced at the Children’s Hospital and just hang with the patients. He’s very smart. Don’t let the soft voice, quiet demeanor and stoic expressions fool you. He’s got quite the personality.”

So no offense to a few agents who may have met with him, or tried to meet with him, but I’ll take those rumblings -- which have yet to be proven -- with a small grain of salt.

I realize that some may read this and say I am biased. I am biased towards Kentucky players. But I’m also more critical of them.

I’ve been watching Kentucky basketball for as long as I can remember, and gone are the days when I could grow with a player, watch him develop for four years and win. One-and-dones have replaced that experience, especially with the University of Kentucky basketball team. That also allows me to be much more discerning when I do watch the players and the games, because if they don’t get it done after one year, as is the expectation, the question as to why is always at the forefront.

On last year’s team, Noel was the only one who improved. The season, of course, was a great disappointment. As soon as Noel went down in that Florida game in March, most of the Big Blue Nation knew that was it for tournament hopes. There goes the best player.

Keep in mind, Noel was going after a ball on the court in a blowout loss to Florida. That shows you a little bit about how he plays this game. And I look forward to watching him grow, develop and and win here in Philadelphia.

Instant Replay: Hawks 110, Sixers 93

Instant Replay: Hawks 110, Sixers 93

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA - Without Joel Embiid, the red-hot Sixers couldn't contain the equally hot Hawks in a 110-93 loss in Atlanta Saturday.

Ersan Ilyasova cranked it up again with 21 points, but the Sixers looked like they ran out of gas in the second quarter, when they gave up 37 points to the Hawks and never caught up to take just their third loss in 11 games. 

Atlanta’s beaten them six straight times, and the Hawks did it this time without their usual long ball proficiency. They won for the ninth time in 11 games making a modest 7 of 20 three-pointers. 

Conversely, the Sixers jacked up 29 threes, converting 12 (41.4 percent) as they saw a three-game winning streak snapped.

Robert Covington added 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Paul Millsap paced the Hawks with 22 points and 10 rebounds while center Dwight Howard scored 13 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.

Inside the box score
The Sixers matched Atlanta early, as the teams were tied at 25 after one, but their defense loosened in the second quarter and they never could catch up as Atlanta made a whopping 16 of 23 shots in the period.

Twenty-one turnovers doomed the Sixers, who also failed to help themselves on the boards. Atlanta had a 48-38 rebounding advantage.
   
Not enough juice
After trailing by as many as 18 points late in the third period, the Sixers made a run at Atlanta and pulled to within 94-87 on a pair of free throws by Covington with 6:46 left in the game. From there, however, the Hawks rolled.

In a groove
Ilyasova picked up where he left off Friday, when he scored a season-high 24 points in a 93-92 win over Portland. He led all scorers with 12 points in the first half and made 3 of 6 from three overall to stretch his league-leading streak of making at least one long ball to 39 games. Ilyasova made five treys Friday night.

Embiid’s sore knee
Saturday was a rest day for center Joel Embiid, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to play Tuesday against the Clippers. He suffered a contusion to his knee in Friday’s win over Portland.

“Joel will go through more assessments with our medical staff,” Brown said before the game. “I don’t have any more . . . to share. We’ll learn more when we get back to Philly.”

Up next
The Sixers return home to play the Clippers (29-15) Tuesday evening and will follow that with a back-to-back Wednesday in Milwaukee (20-23).

Tim Quarterman: Ben Simmons at PG will 'work out well' for Sixers

Tim Quarterman: Ben Simmons at PG will 'work out well' for Sixers

There are only a handful of people who have played basketball extensively with Ben Simmons, given he has been sidelined thus far into his rookie season with a foot injury. Those who spent Simmons’ freshman year at LSU with him have firsthand insight into the NBA player he has the potential to become.

“He's definitely a team player,” Blazers rookie guard Tim Quarterman, who played with Simmons at LSU, said Friday. “He's a pass-first person. He wants to see his teammates do well. I think when he comes back to play, that's what he'll bring to Philly. He's not one of those people who just tries to go out there to get a 100 points. He's a good teammate.”

Quarterman left school after his junior year and earned a spot on the Trail Blazers' roster. He and Simmons have different stories: Simmons was the first overall pick; Quarterman went undrafted. Simmons has has been out since training camp; Quarterman, while playing sparingly, has experienced live NBA action. Still, the two have shared in the journey of life in the league. 

“It's a cool process going through our rookie season together,” Quarterman said before the Trail Blazers faced the Sixers Friday. “Even though he's not playing right now, he's working to get on the court. I'm sure he'll do great when he gets back out there. I got a chance to talk to him last night. Everything's been good so far.”

The Sixers got a small glimpse of Simmons during training camp before he suffered a Jones fracture on the final day. He recently began participating in 5-on-0 drills. Simmons also has been putting up shots after practice and doing light courtwork during pregame warmups. 

Brett Brown has said he intends to start the 6-foot-10 Simmons at the one spot when he returns. As part of his multi-faceted rehab, Brown has been giving Simmons written tests in which he has to navigate various in-game situations as the point guard. Simmons played point-forward at LSU, where he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists. 

“He'll be able to space the floor,” Quarterman said of Simmons at the point. “He can see over the defense and make passes that some little guards can't. He can defend. He can move his feet well. I think it'll work out well.”

It remains to be seen when the former teammates will both be suited up in the same NBA game. There is no timetable set for Simmons’ return. The Sixers face the Trail Blazers for their second and final meeting of the regular season on March 9 in Portland. 

“It's cool for both of us to be making the best of our opportunity,” Quarterman said.