Nerlens Noel Faces Tough NBA Road Even After Injury Rehab

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Nerlens Noel Faces Tough NBA Road Even After Injury Rehab
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers entered this summer with a mediocre roster and a vision. They left it paper-thin on NBA talent but with the architectural plans to orchestrate a massive rebuild.

Rookie Nerlens Noel was a pivotal piece of Philly's offseason haul; The Sixers had to give up All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday in order to pry Noel from New Orleans.

Long (6'11"), lean (206 pounds at pre-draft measurements) and incredibly athletic, it's hard to say which part of Philly's equation he falls under.

If he is an NBA talent, fans won't know it for a while. He's been rehabbing a torn ACL since February, and first-year Sixers coach Brett Brown has already tipped his cap regarding Noel's lengthy recovery process, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst:

I doubt, everybody doubts that he's going to play this year. We don't want to waste this year. I think from a skill perspective, it's an opportunity for us to break down his shot, really work on his free throws and start a little bit from ground zero.

Some might argue that holding out a top-10 pick for an entire season is, in fact, wasting a year. But in this case, Philly has far more to lose than to gain by rushing back a player who may not have the skills needed to compete at this stage, let alone the body to withstand its physical demands.


"Total Rebuild"

It sounds like the name of a cheesy action flick, but it's actually the way Brown described Noel's current shooting mechanics:

Perhaps a tad dramatic, this should in no way be considered surprising. The 19-year-old has just 24 games of college hoops under his belt. The bulk of the 10.5 points he averaged for the Kentucky Wildcats last season came off high-flying finishes and fast-break buckets.

Noel didn't punch his NBA ticket on the strength of his offense. He found his seat inside the Barclays Center for his ability to protect the rim. NBADraft.net compared him to Larry Sanders and Dikembe Mutombo, both supremely talented defenders and incredibly limited offensive players.

Raw seems a bit generous to describe his offensive game. As Brown told Christopher A. Vito of the Delaware County Daily Timeshe has an empty canvass when it comes to working with Noel:

You do stuff with Evan (Turner)’s footwork, which we’ve done. You do stuff with release points or you exaggerate follow-throughs with Tony Wroten, because everything is a hot stove. Everything is tweakable. I think Nerlens is a total rebuild.

Noel's upside is drool-worthy. When he gets strength and trust back in his knee, he can live above the rim. As Philly continues trotting out the grounded Spencer Hawes every night, it's hard to keep thoughts of Noel's frequent flier miles out of your head.

But patience is truly a virtue for both Noel and this franchise. If Philly plays his rehab right, the young man could have a brighter future than any of his draft-day peers:

Michael Carter-Williams might look like the league's next rising star, but Noel can be the real game-changer. You can't teach size or athletic ability; luckily, the big man already has hordes of both.

Mechanics can absolutely be fixed, though. Judging from what Brown shared with Vito, that process is already well underway:

What happens is the off-hand comes in and the elbows start coming out. When he goes one-handed, he gets the elbow under it and he gets a good-looking shot. He can’t get his guide hand on the ball. It just sends it all over the place. I think it can be. I know it’s hard. I think if we have a shot, we have the perfect environment to let it go.

Noel could probably stumble into a double-double with his current skills. Tenacious rebounding is already a staple of his game; he averaged 9.5 in just 31.9 minutes a night last season. Get him out in the open floor, toss a few lobs his way and he could scratch out double-digit points.

Give him a face-up game, though, and suddenly all ceilings are lifted. He can already run circles around the league's lumbering big men, and he has the frame to take on the added weight needed to bully smaller defenders, which he's already started to fill out:

He doesn't need three-point range—although no one would complain if he found it—but a reliable mid-range stroke could open so many doors for his offense.


"A Monster on the Defensive End"

Without fail, at least one blue chip's stock will slip on draft night. Rarely, though, does that free-fall happen to a player widely viewed as the consensus No. 1 pick.

Yet, that's exactly what happened to Noel.

Teams grew leery of his injury history. Five different players that scouts had slotted behind him all season heard their names called first, as a stunned Noel looked on in amazement.

He had reasons to be upset. Ten million of them in fact—the amount of cash that Forbes' Chris Smith reported Noel had lost by sliding back five picks.

If Brown can fix his broken shot, though, that might eventually be chump-change for the flat-topped baller. Credit his transcendent defensive skills for that.

Leading up to the draft, one NBA scouting director gushed the following to the Sporting News' Sean Deveney:

He is the guy who is going to have the most impact in the NBA. He can be a monster on the defensive end. He is athletic and he has the instincts and a huge wingspan. He gets the blocked shots, and he is very good at that, but I like the way he plays his man, too, he is not just a help guy who swats shots away. He can play straight up, too.

The fact that he managed to come off the board at No. 6 speaks volumes about his upside. Weak draft class or not, gambling a top-10 pick on a hobbled piece requires the allure of a tremendously high reward to compensate for that type of risk.

A supercharged, energetic near-7-footer presents such a reward.

Shot-blockers have a spot in the league, but swat artists like Gorgui Dieng (No. 21 pick) and Jeff Withey (No. 39) weren't shown nearly as much love on draft night. Like these players, Noel left college with NBA-ready defense. What separated him from this pack?

Dieng and Withey are Dennis Green players: they're exactly who we thought they were and may never change.

As for Noel, his basketball book has yet to be written. Although his myth might already be growing:

He's a boom-or-bust prospect in every sense of the term, and that has a lot less to do with the health of his knee than people seem to think.


Getting Sunnier in Philadelphia?

So, we know that the Sixers aren't going to be undefeated this season. We're pretty sure they won't even catch a whiff of the playoffs.

How do you see Noel's NBA future playing out?

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But this franchise's future couldn't be brighter.

Carter-Williams (19.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 3.0 steals) already looks like the biggest steal of the 2013 draft class. Noel could rip that title away from him this time next season.

Throw in a blue-chip wing from a stacked 2014 rookie class, and Philly could have a talented, young trio guiding it for the next decade.

But there's work to be done in the present. A lot of it.

Sweat-soaked practice sessions are needed. There's a shooting stroke that must be torn apart and built back up until the movement becomes natural. Offensive awareness and defensive responsibilities have to be learned through hours upon hours of film study.

Noel's NBA challenge started when he took that fateful fall months ago. But his path to stardom has plenty of twists and turns left up ahead, the kinds that the medical team can't help him navigate.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

 

 

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