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.

Joel Embiid officially out for rest of season

Joel Embiid officially out for rest of season

MIAMI -- In the end, he played 31 games.

Joel Embiid's rookie season is officially over, the Sixers announced on Wednesday. Embiid has not suited up since Jan. 27 and has missed 17 of the Sixers' last 18 games because of left knee injuries. An MRI taken Monday revealed a bigger meniscus tear than initially diagnosed but significant healing in the bone bruise.

The Sixers have only 23 games remaining and are not in playoff contention, lessening the urgency of Embiid’s return this season. Embiid concludes his rookie season averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.45 blocks in just 25.4 minutes per game.

"The assessment of Monday's follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid's left knee appears to reveal that the area affected by the bone bruise has improved significantly, while the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan," Sixers chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said in statement released by the team.

Embiid suffered the injury on Jan. 20 against the Trail Blazers, played one game against the Rockets, and has not suited up since then. Last week the Sixers had targeted a return date of March 3 but changed that status changed to "out indefinitely" after Embiid still was experiencing swelling. 

During an MRI taken the night of the injury, the results also revealed Embiid had a slight meniscus tear, which the team did not believe was related to the contusion. 

Prior to the announcement, there was a strong reaction from the fans who were looking for transparency on the big man's status. Embiid expressed his displeasure last Thursday with the way the Sixers managed after he was informed he would miss multiple weeks. 

"I wasn’t too happy with the way it was kind of handled before," Embiid said at the time. "I saw the day-to-day part. I was told that I was going to miss at least two or three weeks. So I wasn’t happy with the way it was handled."  

The following day, president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said he would have done things differently. 

"We should have just said 'out indefinitely,' even though the treatment was still day to day," Colangelo said. "But the fact that there was uncertainty, I'll own that." 

Embiid's short NBA career has been marked by injuries from the very start until now. He sat out his first two seasons with foot injuries. This year the Sixers took an ultra-cautious approach to their starred big man. He was placed under a carefully monitored minute restriction (capped at 28) and did not play on both nights of back-to-back games. Embiid reiterated throughout the season that after missing two years, he was exercising patience to benefit his long-term health.

When Embiid was on the court, though, he shined. He made NBA basketball look easy and he had his way at and away from the basket. Embiid did not appear in enough games to qualify him on the leaders' charts, but based on his raw stats he led all rookies in scoring and in rebounds. Teammate Dario Saric is second in both categories but still trailed Embiid by 8.9 points and 1.6 rebounds. 

Embid ranks second among all players in blocks behind Jazz big man Rudy Gobert. In his first 31 games, he recorded nine double-doubles, which is first among rookies even though he has not played in over a month. 

Embiid scored a career-high 33 points on Dec. 18 against the Nets and 14 rebounds on Jan. 14 against the Knicks. He dished five assists in three games and swatted five blocks in two contests. 

The announcement of Embiid's status comes less than one week after Ben Simmons was ruled out for the season. Like Embiid did, Simmons will miss his entire first year with the Sixers. He suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot during training camp. Simmons received a bone marrow injection on Monday speed up the healing. Both Embiid and Simmons are projected to be the centerpieces of the Sixers' future when they return next season. 

Embiid is with the Sixers in Miami. Expect to see him around the team for the remainder of the season as he stays involved to further their team chemistry for the 2017-18 campaign.

While he works toward his return to the court and eyes his next official game months down the road, he will embrace his mantra. 

As he's always done, Embiid will trust the process.

Sixers-Heat 5 things: Waiters welcomes the Sixers to Miami

Sixers-Heat 5 things: Waiters welcomes the Sixers to Miami

The Sixers (22-37) open March against the Miami Heat (27-33) at American Airlines Arena (7:30 p.m./CSN, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports app).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Gold rush
If you would have told the Sixers beforehand that they would limit the Golden State Warriors to 44.9 percent shooting from the field and 20.7 percent from three-point range that included Stephen Curry going 0 for 11 from deep, they might have expected to win the game.

Instead, the Sixers suffered a 119-108 loss on Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

While the defeat had a lot to do with the team's turnover problem rearing its head yet again (23 turnovers that led to 23 points), a bigger reason was the Warriors' ability to turn to their multiple stars when things got tense.

"That's the holy grail, what they have. That is the king, in my opinion, in our league as we speak," Brett Brown said.

2. Chasing revenge
The Heat may not be on a likely track for the NBA Finals like the Warriors, but they still have postseason aspirations. They are currently two games back of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

If continuing their pursuit of the playoffs wasn't enough reason to be on their game, the Heat will also be out for a little payback against the Sixers.

In the last meeting between these two teams on Feb. 11, the Sixers snapped Miami's 13-game win streak. The Sixers had seven players score in double figures while they limited Hassan Whiteside to 12 points in 34 minutes during the 117-109 victory.

"They were relentless," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after that game. "They had us on our heels from the tip all the way to the end. They never let up."

3. Welcome to my house
One factor behind the Sixers' ability to knock off the Heat that night and snap their streak at 13 was the absence of Dion Waiters. The Philly native missed the game for the Heat with an ankle sprain.

Now Waiters welcomes the Sixers to Miami, where the shooting guard is enjoying the best season of his career. Waiters is averaging career highs in points (15.9, tied with his second season), assists (4.5), rebounds (3.5) and three-point percentage (38.9).

Waiters' scoring has been even better since returning from his ankle injury. He's reached the 20-point mark in three of the five games he has played since getting back on the court.

4. Injuries
Joel Embiid (knee), Tiago Splitter (calf), Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Willie Reed (calf), Josh McRoberts (foot), Justise Winslow (shoulder) and Chris Bosh (calf) are out for the Heat.

5. This and that
• This is the fourth and final matchup between the Sixers and Heat this season. Each team has protected home court with the Sixers winning in Philadelphia on Nov. 21 and Feb. 11 and Heat victorious in Miami on Feb. 4.

• Whiteside has averaged 24.7 points and 17.3 boards a game against the Sixers this season.

• The Sixers scored 50 points in the paint during their last matchup with the Heat.