Breaking down Nerlens Noel's debut, and other Sixers notes

Breaking down Nerlens Noel's debut, and other Sixers notes
July 6, 2014, 11:15 am
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Nerlens Noel scored a game-high 19 points in his Sixers summer league debut on Saturday. (AP)

Well, that was fun. The game we'd all been anticipating for somewhere between two and twelve months finally came and went yesterday afternoon, and it did not disappoint. The long-awaited debut of big man Nerlens Noel in a quasi-Sixers uniform at Game 1 of Orlando's Summer League was the reason for the season, and Nerlens certainly made quite an impression on a fanbase desperately in need of a reason to get excited for another year of likely losing basketball.

It wasn't a perfect performance, but it was definitely a striking one. Here's about how it broke down, in terms of good and bad. Like a kid (or, uh, me) who eats his vegetables first so he has nothing but delicious, juicy steak to look forward to for the rest of his meal, let's get the bad out of the way first.

Not So Good:

  • Shot-blocking was obviously a priority on D for Nerlens, which is great--that's what long, springy seven foot big men are supposed to be good at, and Nerlens averaged an absolutely insane 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes in his 24 games as the defensive ace for John Calipari's UK team two years back. But man, Noel went after every swat in this one, especially in the first half, when he would jump from one step out of the paint to try to swat jumpers being taken at the three-point line, like a blocker in volleyball trying to spike everything at the net.

    Mostly, that's a good thing, and you certainly like the aggressiveness on Noel's part, but it's not a sustainable way to play consistent defense. If you're going for every block, it means you're not in great rebounding position, it means you're not boxing out, and it means you might lose your man on a slip to the rim if the jump-shooter ends up being a jump-passer. And for all the Eraser's attempts at rejection, he only managed one officially tallied block for the evening, so obviously his timing was a little off on his return. Wouldn't be surprising if he ends up racking up seven or eight of these things next time out, though.

  • Speaking of getting out of rebounding position--by far the oddest stat (and there were some strange ones) of Nerlens' final box score line was that the center only grabbed two rebounds for the night, in 26 minutes of game action. If you're playing 26 minutes as a seven-foot human person in Summer League, you should get at least five rebounds just on the misses the hit you in the face and bounce right into your arms. To get that much burn and only grab a pair of boards--Nerlens averaged about 12 boards per 40 minutes at UK, btw--you almost have to be trying not to rebound.

    Noel probably wasn't actively not-rebounding yesterday, but his paucity of boards does speak to how out of position he was most of the time on defense, largely as a result of his thirst for blocks. He also mistimed a good deal of his jumps underneath the rim, and occasionally just got outmuscled down low, something which probably happened to the wiry seven-footer just a handful of times in SEC play but will happen to him a good deal more in the pros.

    Nerlens will have to make a good deal of adjustments to his game to make himself more helpful on the glass at this level, but after just one outing, we're not gonna get on him too much. Again, if he ended up 14 boards in his next game, it would be none too shocking.

  • Though his offense was mostly a pleasant surprise--more on that to come, obviously--Noel's post play could be a little careless at times. The handful of occasions where he called for the ball and was actively fed on the block mostly resulted in misses and turnovers, as Nerlens isn't exactly Al Jefferson yet when it comes to torching defenders down low. Sometimes, he would just get the ball and go careening at the basket, hoping to power his way in and/or draw contact, which looked great when it worked, and not so pretty when it didn't.

    What never looked pretty was his jumper. Nerlens only attempted a couple of shots outside the paint in his debut, but from those looks, it appears he has a long way to go before the mid-range game is really part of his offensive repertoire. His release is slow and awkward, and neither shot was particularly close to going in. That's not a huge issue right away, and I don't think anyone with the Sixers expected him to be a pick-and-pop big in his first season, but it is something he will need to continue to work on, especially if he's gonna share a frontcourt with Joel Embiid some years down the line.

  • Understandable for a player playing his first game of any real degree of competitiveness for about 18 months, but conditioning was clearly a nagging issue for Nerlens. He was slow getting back in transition on a couple plays, and clearly looked winded early on, getting subbed out for the first time just a handful of minutes in. He still finished strong, and he was rarely lacking for energy in the half-court, but Noel will definitely need time to get himself back to true game shape. (As of writing, his status for today's game against Oklahoma City was still undecided.) 

That's about it for the bad. Now, onto the happy happy joy joy.

So Good:

  • As previously alluded to, Nerlens' aggressiveness was boundless throughout. It's no small thing for someone who went through such a painful, debilitating injury the last time he was playing competitive ball to come out and just get after it in his first game back the way Nerlens Noel did in this one. From the first play of the game, he was attacking, attacking, attacking, showing no hesitation whatsoever driving to the rim or contesting shots whenever possible.

    He looked zippy as hell, too, and strong--that and-one that Kulp posted earlier, where Noel got a step on his man, zoomed past him, absorbed his clumsily purposeful contact and still hurtled in for the basket was just incredible, a likely highlight for all of Sixers Summer League. What really impressed on that play though wasn't just the skill it took to finish, which was considerable, but the toughness Noel showed in going for it as he crumpled to the ground, and the durability he showed in simply bouncing back up from it after. Very encouraging.

  • It wasn't just the aggressiveness that made Noel an offensive standout in this one, either--he had touch well beyond what I expected of him. Clearly, his time spent working with Brett Brown and the rest of the Sixers' staff as he recovered from injury during last year's regular season was not in vain, as the big man looked more like a returning sophomore than an NBA freshman. He hit hook shots off glass, he had a nice little floater (much nicer than that of Michael Carter-Williams at this time last year) that landed at one point, he even had some pretty decent footwork in the post on a couple possessions.

    It was a somewhat stunning showing, because scoring wasn't even really supposed to be Noel's strong suit. In his 24 Kentucky games, he never scored more than 19 points, which is exactly the number he hung on Orlando yesterday. It'd be a little surprising if he matched that scoring total too many times over the next few weeks, but it looked like a legitimate 19, one earned through a combination of skill, athleticism and motor that seems like it should be decently sustainable throughout Nerlens' rookie season.

  • By the way, a healthy chunk of those 19 points came via Noel's free-throw shooting. He got to the line seven times over the course of the afternoon--nobody else on either squad earned more than five trips, another sign of how Noel besieged the Orlando defense--and made all seven FTs, easily the most impressive part of Noel's debut performance. He showed good form, with a compact, quick release that almost reminded me of Tim Duncan's sneak-attack style at the charity stripe.

    Going seven-of-seven at the line might not seem like cause for a Mission: Accomplished parade, but for those of us who watched Nerlens take free throws before games or in practices last year--when he had a hideous left-to-right delivery that made it look like he might never make even half his freebies as a pro--it was absolutely jaw-dropping. Nerlens hit only 55 of 104 free throw attempts at UK, and as the big man relayed post-game (as reported by Bob Cooney), GM Sam Hinkie had told him he hoped to see Noel shoot a modest 60% at the stripe this year.

    Obviously, Noel's not gonna shoot 100% on FTs for the entire season, and even with his improved form, there'll probably be a handful of 2-7, 3-9 type nights for him at the line. But again, it looks like the work the Eraser put in with Brett Brown and company rebuilding his shot from scratch in the off-season has paid off in a huge way. (Even if you wouldn't know it from the jumper just yet. Time enough for that, though.)

  • Aside from the free-throw shooting, what really came out of nowhere from Noel's game tonight was his passing. No one ever accused Nerlens of being a selfish player, and he averaged an acceptable 1.6 assists a game in college, but I never knew dishing to be a particular strength of his game. Besides, really, seven-footers mostly known for their raw athleticism typically don't end being much more than finishers, especially not so early in his careers.

    Gotta say, though--big man can dime. Nerlens had some bullet-passes from the high-ish post to cutters underneath the basket that were just beautiful, and delivered with such force and precision that they even seemed to catch his teammates by surprise a couple times early. He ended with three assists on the night (with four turnovers, but most of those came on his post-ups), including a particularly ooooooh-inducing pass to future frontcourt partner K.J. McDaniels under the basket for an easy bucket. You picture this guy getting minutes alongside Joel Embiid, as good a post passer as there was in college last year, and you kinda have to shiver at the possibilities.

  • Finally, Nerlens might not have gotten his hands on many balls in the air last night, but he was an absolute terror taking them off the ground. Noel racked up four steals over the course of the afternoon, using his tremendous length to disrupt passing lanes and dribble drives and get the Sixers going back in the other direction. There was one pick-and-roll that he blew up at the top of the key that I'm still not sure how he managed to disrupt--even when they showed the replay, it was impossible to see how or where he got to the ball, but get to the ball he indeed did.

    And it wasn't all box score stuffing for the big man on D. Noel was an obvious deterrent in the paint, and I found myself muttering "good luck" to the TV whenever a hapless Orlando frontcourt player tried to score over him in the post. Hyped Orlando prospect Aaron Gordon did get around him once, and I recall at least one Magic guard getting one over and in, but the majority of drives at Noel ended in misses that weren't particularly close, or outright turnovers. It's a hard thing to shoot a ball accurately over a dude with 7'4" wingspan that can jump, don't you know.

All in all, I don't think you can really be anything but overjoyed with how Nerlens Noel performed in his first Summer League game. This'll be my seventh season writing about this team for the Level, and over that time, I can't think of a Sixers summertime debut that even challenges Noel's for the best I've seen. With most of our high-profile premieres over that time--Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Michael Carter-Williams--it's been a lot of Yes Buts and Well Ifs, a lot of preaching patience and understanding, a lot of searching for promise rather than admiring results. Not this time: There was no way to watch Nerlens Noel's Orlando debut and come away as anything but incredibly impressed.

Of course, Noel did have the advantage of spending a year on the sidelines and in the training facilities for the Sixers, which many basketball lifers say prepares you for the pros nearly as much as actually playing does. And he does clearly have a number of areas of his game that still need improvement--as does his body, which may yet keep him from playing in back-to-back games for the time being. And though it was a very impressive first game, it was still just one Orlando game for Nerlens, and all the necessary caveats about small samples and it being Summer League must be applied.

But none of that should change how Sixers feel about their rookie big man this weekend, and that is just friggin' pumped. It was a long season without him last year, but if there was any doubt that Nerlens Noel was gonna be worth the wait, it was pretty handily put to rest yesterday afternoon. The future is now, and shades will be necessary apparel sooner rather than later.

Some other notes on the Sixers' Summer League opener (which by the way was an 83-77 loss, as if that matters) and some of the 14 players who are not Nerlens Noel:

  • His debut won't get nearly the attention that Noel's has, and understandably so, but I was almost as impressed by our first look at K.J. McDaniels. The highest-drafted of our five second-rounders from a couple weeks ago, K.J. was nearly as much of a monster in affecting shots as Nerlens (with one absolutely beastly block), and he scored a solid nine points on 4-8 shooting, including a convincing pull-up jumper out of the pick-and-roll, and one pretty catch-and-shoot three. His defensive tenacity was immediately apparent, and his offense was surprisingly smooth. Hope we get to see more of K.J. over the next few weeks, as he played fewer than 20 minutes in this one.

  • On the other hand, our next-highest second-rounder Jerami Grant was virtually invisible. Jerami notched just one point and two rebounds in about 16 minutes of game action, missing on all three field goal attempts. He got buried in the rotation a little, so it'll be interesting to see how (or if) Summer League coach Lloyd Pierce juggles the lineup a bit over the course of the team's Orlando stay to look at players like Grant in different roles and with different teammates.

  • That Ronald Roberts Jr. sure can jump. The St. Joe's grad started at power forward for the Sixers and nearly notched a double-double with nine rebounds and 12 points, most of which were achieved just by getting up higher than anyone else could at the rim. I don't know if he quite has the skill to make it to a pro roster, but sometimes all you need is one easily translated and understood NBA-level skill to crack someone's rotation somewhere, and Roberts definitely has that.

  • On a similar track, say what you will about Aaron Craft--and people have said just about everything there is to say about a basketball player, good or bad, about Craft over his seemingly endless four-year tenure at Ohio State--but ooh boy, can that kid defend on-ball. The point guard made life absolutely miserable for Magic blue-chip prospects Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo over the course of his ten minutes of action in this one. He picked up full court, he fought his way under screens, he helped trap on the perimeter, and he absolutely refused to give up an inch of space or a first step into the lane.

    His offense was occasionally brutal--just two points and one assist, with a top-of-the-key turnover on a telegraphed pass that led to an easy fast-break bucket at the other end--and I'm still not sure he'll be able to pressure effectively enough like this on a nightly basis to make it in the Association. But if I was a scout watching these games, what he did to Oladipo and Payton, two legit pros, would certainly get my attention. If he keeps it up all week, you can bet he'll get another look in the preseason somewhere.

  • Casper Ware had his moments, going 4-11 for 16 points, with three triples and an amusingly intense back-and-forth with Oladipo. He also had just two assists to go with six turnovers, so it's safe to say his days of serving as the Sixers' starting point guard will be limited to the July month. Good to see the Friendly Ghost getting after it, anyway.

  • Only in Summer League: Returning Sixers forward (and traditional 3s-and-D-only guy) Hollis Thompson shot just 2-12 for five points yesterday, but had 14 rebounds (!!) to go with a team-high five assists (???) and a couple steals. Sure.

  • Pour one out for poor, poor Pierre Jackson. After a season spent toiling in the D-League as part of the Pelicans franchise (traded there, you might recall, by the Sixers as part of the Holiday-Noel deal), he finally gets a real opportunity to make a big-league roster after being traded back to Philly on draft night...and he hurts his ACL a couple plays into his Summer League debut. That's probably it for Jackson's season, and almost definitely it for his Summer League, and that just blows in the biggest way. Get well soon, Pierre, and hope to see you back next summer.

That's a wrap for Game One. The Sixers play again today at 5:00, likely without Noel, which could mean more minutes for McDaniels and Grant (and maybe a Melvin Ejim appearance, please?) among others. Get excited, people: The fun is just beginning for this team.