Philadelphia 76ers

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.

Sixers notes, quotes and tidbits: Simmons' defensive assignment; Saric's role

Sixers notes, quotes and tidbits: Simmons' defensive assignment; Saric's role

Sixers coach Brett Brown reiterated Wednesday that he plans to use Ben Simmons as his point guard this season, while adding that Markelle Fultz will not be excluded from “decision-making and point guard-type of responsibilities” on occasion.

Brown also didn’t rule out using the 6-10 Simmons as a small-ball center.

Simmons and Fultz have been the top picks in each of the last two drafts, but Simmons missed last season while his broken right foot healed.

Simmons, who played a single season at LSU, is “an elite passer,” in Brown’s estimation, as well as a guy who has “jaw-dropping” speed.

Brown has also found that the 6-4 Fultz, selected after the Sixers engineered a trade with Boston for the most recent No. 1 choice, is very coachable. And his skill set is as advertised.

There will be times, as a result, when each runs the point.

“Once the ball is missed and you have sort of jailbreak, Markelle’s going to be in (the) open court with the ball,” Brown said. “He will be at that point one of the primary ballcarriers. When it’s a static situation and you’ve got to run a play at the start of the year, Ben Simmons will have the ball. … At the start of the game and it’s a dead ball, we’re going to give Ben the ball.”

Defensively, Brown envisions Fultz playing opposing point guards and Simmons guarding power forwards. The matchups with the other projected starters are also conventional. Joel Embiid will play centers, Robert Covington will guard the other team’s best wing and JJ Redick will check the other wing.

Brown also said Simmons “has a chance to be an elite defender,” though his reputation in college was otherwise. Fultz also played a lot of zone in his lone year at Washington.

The Simmons-at-center discussion was an interesting one. Brown said it is “possible” he will use Simmons – or possibly 6-10 Dario Saric – in that capacity at times, noting that the Warriors closed games with no one bigger than 6-7 Draymond Green (and more recently, 6-10 Kevin Durant) on the court.

“When you get down to the last six minutes, inevitably it ends up a smaller game,” Brown said.

As for Simmons’ health, president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said that hasn’t been a concern for a while.

“He’s playing five-on-five,” Colangelo said, “and dominating the gym.”

Fluid rotation
Much is still to be determined about the rotation, given the presence of veterans like Amir Johnson, Jerryd Bayless, Richaun Holmes, Nik Stauskas and (possibly) a slimmed-down Jahlil Okafor.

And what of Saric? He averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds as a rookie last season, while appearing in all but one game. There is speculation that he might wind up the sixth man, but Brown is not yet certain about that.

“His gift of basketball intellect is high, and so when you say where does he fit in, I’m saying anywhere we want,” he said. “Where does he fit in to start games, end games, I don’t know. I just know that in my opinion, that’s probably the Rookie of the Year (last season), and his skill package and his toughness and his intellect will be fit in where it’s needed most -- in a timely fashion, we believe.”

Milwaukee guard Malcolm Brogdon was chosen Rookie of the Year, while Saric and Embiid made the All-Rookie team. Now Saric is one of many players for whom Brown must find time.

“The gym’s going to tell us a lot,” he said.

And, he added, “I feel the first third of the season is going to be a lot of learning for all of us.”

Playoffs?
Playoff talk has been rampant for a while, and when asked by Ian Thomsen of NBA.com about that, Colangelo said, “Forecasting that would definitely, I believe, be unrealistic. But hoping for that? It’s on everybody’s mind.”

Colangelo revisited that on Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s unrealistic to want to be in the playoffs, or have a goal to be in the playoffs,” he said. “That is our goal, but (there are) things you have to look at with respect to the situation we find ourselves in.”

He pointed out the difficulty of making the postseason with two rookie guards. According to the Sixers’ research, it hasn’t happened since Houston did so in 1998-99, with a backcourt of Cuttino Mobley and Michael Dickerson.

Then there is the matter of incorporating the other new pieces, like Redick and Johnson.

“I think it’s premature to throw anything out with respect to a number (of victories) or any goal,” Colangelo said, “but I would say our objective is to make the playoffs.”

Brown, 75-253 in his first four years on the job (including last year’s 28-54), knows the team is “in a different phase,” as he put it, and understands how difficult it can be to take the next step. At the same time, he too is caught up in the excitement of the playoff talk, which has in part emanated from the players.

“I really don’t say anything to them about tempering expectations,” he said. “I like them saying stuff. Then you’ve got to own it. … Words are one thing, actions are another.”

But certainly he likes how hard they have worked in the offseason, and sees the potential.

“Years ago,” he said, “I heard a phrase: ‘If they show you who they are, believe them.’ That’s over a period of time. … On first glance, when I check some of our guys, I think they have a real chance for greatness. We aspire to win a championship in the city. Then you want another one, and then another one.”

As Sixers camp nears, Joel Embiid still not ready for 5-on-5

As Sixers camp nears, Joel Embiid still not ready for 5-on-5

The foremost question on everybody’s minds when Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo and coach Brett Brown met with reporters over lunch Wednesday afternoon was simple: When is Joel Embiid going to be able to play 5-on-5?

“Right now,” Brown said, “we can’t give you a direct answer.”

The 23-year-old Embiid, who as a rookie in 2016-17 displayed uncommon skills and equally uncommon charisma, underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee in March, ending his season after 31 games.

The 7-2, 280-pound center is the obvious key to a young, promising team, but he is not yet ready to go full-tilt. 

“If you walk in the gym, it looks like he could play 5-on-5 basketball,” Colangelo said. “But we’re going to take our cues from the people who know best.”

And right now the Sixers’ medical staff, headed by the newly hired vice president of athlete care, Dr. Daniel Medina, favors what Colangelo called “a hyper-conservative progression.”

“Will he be ramping that up throughout the preseason?” Colangelo said “Yes. How many games, we’re not certain. Is it every game? We don’t know. That will be based on what we’re told.”

The Sixers open training camp next Tuesday in their Camden, New Jersey-based facility. The preseason begins Oct. 4 against Memphis at the Wells Fargo Center, while the regular season opens Oct. 18 in Washington.

“It’s not about being ready for the first practice or the first game,” Colangelo said. “And he will be out there for the first practice and the first game. The question is how much, how little, if at all. Those things will be determined by certain criteria along the way.”

Colangelo said, in fact, that he has a document that spells out the criteria that must be met before Embiid can play.

“There is a plan in place,” Colangelo said, “and it’s a progression-based plan. It’s criteria-based, and as he’s checking off boxes, and continues to jump over each and every successive item, then we’ll put him out there on the floor. There’s no timetable. There’s no scheduled number of minutes. There is no decision on back-to-backs. All of that is yet to be determined.”

Embiid, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, missed his first two seasons while recovering from a broken foot. He averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks last season, despite a minutes restriction; he averaged just 25.4 a game.

When Brown was asked whether Embiid will be on such a restriction this season, he said, “We all hope not, obviously.”

The other question about Embiid concerns whether he and the team can reach an accord on a contract extension. Colangelo said he is “cautiously optimistic” that that can happen before Oct. 16, the NBA’s deadline for extending players on their rookie deals.

But the primary question remains about Embiid’s health.

“This really is about creating an opportunity for him to have long-term, sustainable health,” Colangelo said, “not to get ready for the first preseason game per se, or the second preseason game. Again, that progression is going to lead to hopefully a full season of competitive basketball, without restriction. That’s the goal.”