The Philadelphia 76ers are entering a period of transition, one that will be marked by an abundance of losses and speculation about future draft picks.
But what people should focus on as the season gets underway is the development of first-round picks Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel during their rookie campaigns. There's already considerable talk surrounding Andrew Wiggins and a potential No. 1 overall pick, but general manager Sam Hinkie and the Sixers front office targeted Carter-Williams and Noel for good reason. Each has a unique skill set that can help the Sixers in the long run, particularly on the defensive end.
So before jumping the gun on a presumed high lottery selection, it's only fair to asses how two pieces of the team's new foundation will fit in with the Sixers when they hit the floor this season.
Noel's best known for his shot-blocking prowess, and that's undoubtedly why the Sixers made the move to acquire him on draft night. As a freshman at Kentucky, Noel led the nation with 4.4 blocks a night. What's even more impressive is that despite appearing in only 24 games, Noel still finished fifth overall in total blocks with 106.
According to CBS Philly's Spike Eskin, Hinkie targeted Noel because of the limited stock of pure shot-blockers in today's game:
We are excited and I am excited today to add Nerlens to our team. Rim protector is at a real premium in our league right now, a real premium. Athletic players have always been at a premium. Nerlens is both. Nerlens is a guy who brings it on every possession he’s on the floor, who is constantly trying to protect the rim as drivers attack. And he’s a guy who we think will fit the style of play that we hope to play here in Philadelphia. He’s also motivated and hungry to return and this is the part where we have to be reasonable in a whole bunch of ways.
Once healthy, Noel projects as the Sixers' starting center. Considering Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen and Kwame Brown are the other options, that should be a no-brainer.
But how exactly does Noel's style of play fit in with Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and his buddy Carter-Williams?
Based on what head coach Brett Brown has said, Noel should slot in nicely at the 5. Noel possesses such a rare blend of athleticism, height and length that he should adapt to Brown's system nicely from a scheme standpoint.
"We want to go. We want to get out in the open court, and we want to run. It's easy to say, but it's hard to run for 82 games. You have to have a tremendous fitness base."
When you watch Noel play, it's hard not to be taken aback by how swiftly and effortlessly he can run up and down the floor. The fact that a 6'11'' center can run with guards and forwards will be a huge plus for his value at the next level, and it's evident when you watch the tape that he will easily be able to turn defense into offense for a team that lacks pure shooters in the half court.
The big question facing Noel is his inability to post up against bulkier, sturdier post presences. That part of his game needs loads of work, and it's undoubtedly going to be a while before he can find ways to use his quickness to exploit the deficiencies of stronger, slower centers.
One way would be to face up, which he did with surprising effectiveness at Kentucky. For reference, take a look at the brief clips below.
The biggest takeaway from those highlights is that Noel is confident in his ability to put the ball on the floor and take it to the rim when matched up against less athletic defenders. With great length and elite agility for a center, Noel could find dribble-drives to be a key part of his offensive repertoire moving forward.
Before Noel returns, all eyes will be on the former Syracuse point guard and how his limited offensive game transitions to the next level.
It's difficult to draw significant conclusions from summer league contests, but Carter-Williams did show a knack for getting to the basket. The only problem was that dribble-drives and trips to the free-throw line were his only reliable sources of offensive production.
Considering the Sixers have no go-to scorer, or even a reliable one at that, Carter-Williams will be given every opportunity to post big numbers when the ball is in his hands. And the comforting part for Philly's new point guard is that few are expecting to see any offensive polish from Carter-Williams based on tape and scouting reports, so he will learn from his mistakes with little pressure as the season progresses.
As we saw with Holiday last season, a large role and a dismal supporting cast can inflate one's numbers and mask inefficiencies and turnovers, which is what could very well wind up happening with Carter-Williams, albeit on a smaller scale.
The other big factor working in Carter-Williams' favor is the great size he has for a point guard (6'6'' with a 6'7'' wingspan), which will help him stand out in Brown's defense. With Noel, Young and Carter-Williams, the Sixers have three athletic freaks who can hound opposing ball-handlers, and the latter will be tested quite frequently against the likes of Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo (once healthy), Derrick Rose and other great Eastern Conference point guards.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of Carter-Williams' game, though, is his court vision. Because he's so much taller than opposing point guards, Carter-Williams can easily see and pass over defenders. And thanks to his height and length, Carter-Williams is an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Noel, one who can skip passes to the center as he rolls into the lane or feed the big man on a series of lobs.
Intelligent decision-making is a prerequisite for running the point, and Carter-Williams showed flashes during his days with the Orange and at the Orlando Summer League. Ultimately, the Sixers are banking on Brown honing those bits of potential and turning MCW into a refined product, one that will eventually make fans forget about Holiday.