It was the same before almost every game. Nerlens Noel would be at the free throw line. Brett Brown would be somewhere in the same vicinity – usually a step or two behind the player. It was part of the process.
Noel would stand on his left foot and lift his right leg. He’d hold the ball with his right hand, and only his right hand, and slowly raise it toward his head, taking care all the while to keep his elbow tucked in. Then Noel would extend his arm and flick his wrist and release the ball toward the basket, making sure to concentrate on his follow through while keeping that leg raised.
It was a strange-looking drill, like Noel was playing the part of Daniel LaRusso learning the crane kick on a court instead of a beach. The only thing missing was some '80s training montage music. That would make Brown Mr. Miyagi in this analogy, which is a comparison the head coach might not mind. As in the movie, Brown needed his student to unlearn all his previous mechanics and retrain his muscles with the proper technique.
So Noel did that drill. Again and again. Day after day. If getting Noel healthy after he tore his ACL was the top priority for the Sixers, then fixing his shot while he was on the shelf was a close second. Brown was open about the heavy lifting required. More than once, he called Noel’s shot a “total rebuild.” So where is Noel’s shot now?
“It’s rebuilt,” Noel said after the season ended. “I’m still in the process of definitely keeping it consistent. I’m working at it. Every time I step in the gym, making sure I keep that elbow in and stay with the fundamentals.”
Noel just turned 20. He played less than a full season in college, and he’s yet to appear in a competitive professional game. It’s fine if he thinks his shot is rebuilt, but you are forgiven if you are less certain.
At different points during the season, Brown said Noel was “making progress” with his shot and “ticking boxes,” but the head coach never pretended that he knows how the rehabbed mechanics will function once the shot is pressed into game action. Brown said having Noel sit out this year wasn’t what the player wanted, but it might have been a “blessing” in a way because it allowed the staff to break down Noel’s shot.
As the Sixers move forward with their rebuilding efforts, quite a bit rides on what the organization thinks of the job Brown and company did with Noel. The belief is that Noel will be a quality rebounder and interior defender -- that he will protect the rim and allow the Sixers to change their help defense so the wings and guards can regularly defend perimeter shooting threats rather than collapse into the paint at the first sign of trouble. But that has always been the belief. The question -- which is the same as ever -- is what sort of offensive game Noel might have in the NBA.
The Sixers won 19 games. They finished with the second-worst record in the league. They could use help just about everywhere. The front office is already deep into its evaluations for the upcoming draft. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker would fill needs. But what if both are off the board when the Sixers select? What if the Sixers are left with a different, tougher decision that makes them wonder about redundancy and overlap? What if the best available options when they select are Kansas center Joel Embiid and/or Kentucky power forward Julius Randle?
Embiid, like Noel, is long and lean and believed to be a quality rim protector. But while he has huge upside, his offensive game is also raw (he’s from Cameroon and didn’t start playing competitive basketball until he was 16). For all his obvious potential, could the Sixers pair him with Noel when no one is exactly sure what either player can be offensively?
At 6-9, Randle is shorter than Embiid and Noel, but he’s also thicker (250 pounds) and more developed offensively. He has a good handle for a power forward, can shoot for a big man, and figures to play face up in the NBA. He’d be a good rebounding complement to Noel. But would Randle’s offensive game dovetail nicely with Noel’s, or would the former arrest the development of the latter?
Pairing Embiid or Randle with Noel would make the Sixers’ frontcourt instantly better at protecting the rim and rebounding. The hunch here is that Randle would be a better offensive fit with Noel than Embiid. But that’s the thing. It’s hard to know because only the Sixers have an idea of what Noel can do offensively – and even they’re pretty much guessing until he plays in a meaningful contest. It’s already been more than a year since Noel played a competitive game. He won’t get to end that streak until summer league begins.
“Coach Brown has done so much with me over this past year,” Noel said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot. All those little drills have definitely carried on with my shooting technique.”
In this case, rebuilding a team is similar to rebuilding a shot -- there are a lot of unknowns, and not doing a proper job could set everyone and everything back for a while.