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.

Give and Go: Predicting Sixers' starting 5

Give and Go: Predicting Sixers' starting 5

Each week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are CSNPhilly.com Sixers insider Jessica Camerato, CSNPhilly.com producer/reporter Matt Haughton, and CSNPhilly.com producer/reporter Paul Hudrick.

This week, we'll take a stab at the Sixers' starting five for opening night.

Camerato
Let’s preface this prediction with a projection: This lineup will change multiple times throughout the season. I expect Joel Embiid to be in the starting five once he transitions into his rookie year, his first since he was drafted in 2014. The Sixers also will have to assess how different combinations translate onto the court, which will play out in game competition. 

Back to opening night. The backcourt is up for grabs at both positions. Last season’s starting point guard, Ish Smith, signed with the Pistons and Brett Brown has said he plans to start Ben Simmons, who can play point-forward, at the four spot. Jerryd Bayless has the edge over Sergio Rodriguez and T.J. McConnell with his proven veteran experience in the NBA.

The same goes for Gerald Henderson at shooting guard. That starting role is up for grabs given the inconsistencies of it last season, and that rookie Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot will be developing off the bench (or in the D-League).

Small forward is intriguing because the Sixers have so many bigs who can play the four and five ... so who’s the best fit for three? Dario Saric played power forward in Europe, but if Brown wants to incorporate him into the starting lineup, he could slide him into the 3-spot. Saric’s former teammate Stephane Lasme told CSNPhilly.com he could see Saric having offensive success at small forward with his size advantage, and defensively he could be challenged. The Sixers may go with non-traditional lineups when it comes to this position.

The power forward spot goes to Simmons. While he will handle point guard responsibilities, Brown wants to start him at the four at the beginning of his NBA career. 

So that brings us to center, the position that was in question last season and still is now. The conundrum of how to utilize Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor still exists. Both are natural fives, and last year they struggled playing out of position. I gave Noel the nod over Okafor in this starting combination because of the way he can run the court in an up-tempo system and spread the floor with Simmons. 

PG: Bayless
SG: Henderson
SF: Saric
PF: Simmons
C: Noel

Haughton
While the Sixers' final roster decisions shouldn't be too taxing for Brown, putting together the starting five will certainly prove to be tougher. Figuring out five players that mesh well on the court can take time and it will likely change throughout the course of the 2016-17 season.

The Sixers have options at point guard after signing Bayless and Rodriguez during free agency, but Bayless should get the nod here. His career numbers are better across the board than those of Rodriguez, who will take some time to readjust to the NBA game after not playing in the league since 2009-10. Plus, Bayless' ability as an outside shooter (shot a career-high 43.7 percent from three-point range last season) and the fact that he doesn't need to operate with the ball in his hands should make him an instant fit with No. 1 pick Simmons.

Shooting guard all comes down to what Brown wants in his starting lineup. Free-agent signee Henderson is clearly the best option, but Brown might prefer having the luxury of his skill set coming off the bench with Nik Stauskas opening up with the first unit. With that said, I still think Henderson will play with the starters. He gives the Sixers enough offense and is an upgrade on the defensive end.

The small forward spot belongs to Robert Covington ... for now. Sure, Saric is finally in the fold and figures to see time at that slot at some point in the future. I just don't see the Sixers throwing the Croatian into the fire during his rookie season. Jerami Grant will also snag minutes here, but he doesn't figure to get any consideration as a starter.

Power forward belongs to Simmons. That is all.

The crowded center position will be the Sixers' toughest selection. Embiid will be on a minutes restriction and won't play in back-to-back sets after missing two seasons, so he's likely out. That leaves Okafor and Noel. If you're like those in our CSN newsroom, you either fall in the Okafor camp or the Noel camp. Not both. I guess that means I'm on the Okafor side. I understand the complaints about his defense and they are valid, but when you give up 107.6 points per game as a team, that means everyone could stand to improve on D. Yes, even Noel. Okafor's talent on the other end, however, isn't up for debate. He can fill it up and will benefit from a gifted passer such as Simmons feeding him the ball.

PG: Bayless
SG: Henderson
SF: Covington
PF: Simmons
C: Okafor

Hudrick
Simmons, Henderson and Covington are almost locks to start. Many have penciled in Bayless at point guard because of his ability to shoot and how that will mesh with Simmons' playing style. Fair point, but Bayless is not a true point guard. Brown said that while he toyed with the notion of starting Simmons as a point guard, he didn't want to put that much on the rookie's plate. Enter Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is a true point guard that excels in the pick-and-roll, has good court vision and offers a calming influence. El Chacho, as the kids are calling him, has a great deal of experience in the Euroleague, taking home an MVP award and a championship with Real Madrid. He's not a knock-down shooter, but he can hit the occasional open three. His chemistry with Pau Gasol during the Olympics made me think of the possibilities of Rodriguez playing with Embiid, Okafor and Noel.

As far as center goes, you can really just take your pick. I'm going with Okafor only because he'll be the most helpful player to Simmons on the offensive end with his hands and ability to finish around the basket. Certainly Brown could opt for Noel if he wants a better defensive lineup. Both players may just be keeping that starting spot warm for Embiid.

PG: Rodriguez
SG: Henderson
SF: Covington
PF: Simmons
C: Okafor

Joel Embiid says he's '100 percent' back from foot injury, excited to play with Ben Simmons

Joel Embiid says he's '100 percent' back from foot injury, excited to play with Ben Simmons

AVALON, N.J. -- Joel Embiid has been waiting since 2014 to make his NBA debut. Two years later, the former third overall pick is nearing that day.

“I feel a hundred percent,” Embiid said Saturday at the Sixers Beach Bash. “I’m ready to get started. My summer has been great. We’ve been working out a lot this past summer, just getting some runs in. I’ve gotten a chance to play a little bit against the guys.” 

Embiid’s pro career has been sidelined by injuries, undergoing two foot surgeries in as many years. The first was to repair a stress fracture in his right navicular bone. The second, a bone-graft operation on the same bone. 

The 7-foot-2 big man has been rehabbing since then, traveling as far as Qatar in the process. This offseason Embiid was cleared for monitored, five-on-five drills. He joined the Sixers during the Las Vegas Summer League to continue his recovery away from game competition.

“It’s been really tough,” Embiid said. “The main thing is, I haven’t gotten a chance to get on the court and play, or help my teammates, or play in front of Sixers fans. I look forward to it and I can’t wait.”

Embiid said he “definitely” plans to be a go for training camp. He expects there will be a transition period once cleared to play given the length of his rehab, but notes he is a quick learner. Embiid also anticipates having restrictions, but has not discussed the specifics with the Sixers. 

“Probably,” he said. “But I think the restrictions would probably be about the fact that I haven’t played in two years. It’s not going to be about because people are worried that I’m going to re-injure myself, which I don’t think is going to happen.”

One player who is eager for Embiid’s return is rookie first overall pick Ben Simmons. The two have been friends since high school. They easily gel off the court, and plan to do the same in games. 

“He has great footwork, he has great touch, so I’m looking forward to playing with him,” Simmons said, continuing, “Off the court, we’re like brothers. We have fun.” 

Embiid has been present with the Sixers for games and practices. He has had numerous conversations with head coach Brett Brown about his days on the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff and how the organization achieved success with fellow big Tim Duncan, one of Embiid’s basketball role models. 

With an abundance of bigs, the Sixers will have to determine how they share the floor. For Embiid, who can also knock down long-range shots, he plans to fill whatever role the coaches outline for him.

“I think I’ll take a couple threes, but I’ll do what’s best for the team and whatever I’ll feel comfortable doing,” he said. “Obviously they’re going to need my presence inside and that’s what I’m going to do. But when I’m open, I might fire some threes.”

After a series of setbacks, Embiid is enthusiastic about the thought of making his NBA debut. 

“It feels great,” he said. “Especially after the past two years, I haven’t been able to do what I love. It just feels great.”  

Sixers trade Kendall Marshall to Jazz for center Tibor Pleiss, draft picks

Sixers trade Kendall Marshall to Jazz for center Tibor Pleiss, draft picks

The Sixers on Friday traded point guard Kendall Marshall to the Utah Jazz for center Tibor Pleiss, two future second-round picks and cash. 

Both second-round picks are in the 2017 NBA draft. The Jazz have four second-rounders — their own, as well as the ones belonging to the Warriors, Knicks and Pistons. The Sixers will receive the highest and lowest of those four picks.

The Sixers are likely to waive Pleiss. The team made a similar move in July, waiving center Sasha Kaun two days after acquiring him in a trade with the Cavaliers.

Marshall, who was later waived by the Jazz after the deal, was likely to be cut by the Sixers. The team signed guards Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez this offseason. The deal gives the Sixers future assets and cash while unloading a player signed by the previous front office.

Marshall was one of the few free agents Sam Hinkie added, signing a deal for the 2015-16 season and options for the next three seasons.

It looked initially like Marshall would be the starting point guard last season. However, Marshall, was hurt to begin the season and struggled when he got on the court. He played just 30 games and started six, averaging 3.7 points per game in 13.3 minutes. His field goal, three-point and free throw percentages all regressed from his 2014-15 season with the Bucks.

Pleiss was originally a second-round pick by the Nets in the 2010 NBA draft. The German center's rights were dealt in three separate deals, eventually ending up with the Jazz last offseason. He signed a multi-year deal and spent the 2015-16 season bouncing between the Jazz and their D-League affiliate. He averaged 2.0 points per game in 6.8 minutes.