Should Sixers play Nerlens Noel this season?
Sixers coach Brett Brown wants Nerlens Noel to be a 60 percent free-throw shooter in his first year in the NBA. (USA Today Images)
If the Sixers handed out a "most-improved player" award, this year's could easily go to a player who has yet to step on the court for a game: Nerlens Noel.
The opportunity to use Noel's rehab to also rebuild his shot has excited head coach Brett Brown.
“This is the first time we are really letting him bring the other hand to the ball," Brown said. "Sometimes he cheats but I yell at him. What has happened now is there is real carry over. We can say all we want about jump shots. I really don’t care about jump shots. He is a 50 percent free-throw shooter. If we can get him to 60 percent in his first year -- and I know that sounds like a low goal -- but for him it is huge.”
As Brown spoke, Noel was shooting free throw after free throw, with guide hand in place.
There were a whole lot of makes.
“He made 19 out of 19,” Brown said of an earlier shooting session. “This is a bit of a bold statement, but this year with the rebuilding of his whole shot can set a stage for him for many, many years.”
Brown believes Noel has the potential to become a 75 to 77 percent free-throw shooter. Given where Noel is starting from, that may sound like a lofty goal. But to avoid being a poor foul-shooting center like some who have come before him, the Sixers' rookie is committed to change.
“People don’t invest time,” Brown said. “And makeovers can’t happen until the offseason. You can’t just blow up somebody’s shot in the middle of the year or the start of the year because there is not enough time and you want them to experience success.”
There are a host of centers currently shooting less than 65 percent at the foul line, and many of them are critical pieces to their respective teams.
The Clippers' DeAndre Jordan shoots 40.3 percent. The Rockets' Dwight Howard, 52.5. The Pistons' Andre Drummond, 40.0. The Knicks' Tyson Chandler, 62.7.
Brown doesn’t want Noel’s future to be hindered because people see a weakness they can exploit over and over.
“People like Dwight or Shaq, for whatever reason, never said June, July, August. We have to start from ground zero,” Brown said. “One-handed shooting is the only way you can do it because it just eliminates all the problems with feet and a drifting elbow or bad guide hand. It forces you to get your elbow under the ball and hold it.”
In his 19-year career, Shaq shot 52.7 percent at the foul line, a number that often had teams instituting "Hack-a-Shaq."
Brown wants Noel to be able to step to the charity stripe and be confident that makes will follow.
“This may be the most important skill he is going to have to apply: Can he shoot a free throw?” Brown said. “We know he is going to run and dunk and block a shot because his athleticism is going to let him do that. But we don’t know if he is going to do this.”