What Does Nerlens Noel's NBA Ceiling Really Look Like?

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2013

Will Nerlens Noel be a barely-above-replacement player or a high-level starter? That remains to be seen.
Will Nerlens Noel be a barely-above-replacement player or a high-level starter? That remains to be seen.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

ESPN's Amin Elhassan incurred the wrath of Philadelphia 76ers fans on Twitter in mid-November by ranking all 2013 first-round picks based upon their current abilities and their long-term potential (subscription required).

While he was bullish on Michael Carter-Williams—MCW's ceiling was in the middle of the "high-level starter" category—the same can't be said about Nerlens Noel.

Elhassan gave Noel a readiness grade of 51.0, on the low end of "rotation bench" player, and a long-term potential grade of 49.5, which was right below the cut-off line between "rotation bench" player and "fringe rotation" player.

Under previous Sixers regimes, Elhassan's skepticism would likely be warranted. The Sam Hinkie-Brett Brown brain trust, however, deserves far more optimism when it comes to Noel's ceiling.

Here's what Elhassan wrote about Noel, both in the short and long term: 

We're not sure when (or if) Noel will return to the court, so for the time being his readiness should be at zero. But in a hypothetical world where Noel is healthy and ready to go on opening night, his length and athleticism (and subsequent shot-blocking ability) give him just enough to warrant playing time. Offensively, Noel is extremely raw, and will need to be spoon fed buckets or score off of offensive rebound opportunities, much like a DeAndre Jordan, until he can develop a consistent jumper and the ability to put the ball on the floor for a beat or two.

Based on Elhassan's Twitter mentions over those next few hours, a number of the Sixers' faithful took issue with his low ranking of Noel's ceiling. Here, he expounded upon his rationale a bit:

If the Sixers were still run by Doug Collins and Tony DiLeo, such fears would make perfect sense. Despite having little to play for in 2013-14, the previous Sixers regime likely would have rushed Noel's return to the court, placing a lower premium on his long-term development.

Hinkie and Brown aren't wired the same way, though. They know that contention for the NBA title doesn't just arrive overnight (unless you're the Miami Heat in 2010, of course).

At worst, under Hinkie and Brown, Noel's ceiling will be a rotation starter. Best-case scenario, he'll develop into an All-Star franchise player, the likes of which five teams will rue the day they passed over him in the 2013 draft.

Brown's focus on health and fitness, which he mentioned during his introductory press conference back in August, should be a boon to Noel as he recovers from ACL surgery. The Sixers aren't rushing to get the big man back onto the court, which gives him an entire year to get his body right.

It also means Noel will have a full year to work with the Sixers training staff on adding some much-needed bulk, which was one of the biggest concerns about him heading into the draft.

The Sixers knew Noel was a work in progress when they drafted him. He posted elite defensive statistics during his one year with the Kentucky Wildcats (5.0 blocks and 2.4 steals per 36 minutes, as noted by Waiting For Next Year), but he remains extraordinarily raw on offense.

Brown, knowing that, has begun a "total rebuild" with Noel's shot mechanics, as he told CSN Philly's Dei Lynam earlier this month. The first place they began was the free-throw line, the coach said, with some one-handed shooting closer to the basket sprinkled in.

Per USA Today's Jeff Zillgett, Brown believes those baby steps will help Noel eventually improve his entire offensive repertoire:

You start with the free throws, but that carries over to now he's going to turn and face (the basket). He really likes Kevin Garnett and those jump-shooting bigs. At some point, he aspires to be one of them even though he's a post player initially. The free throw is the thing that carries over to other parts of his game. Hopefully, we get that right.

That's not to say that we'll be mistaking Noel for a 7'0" version of Stephen Curry any time soon. At the same time, the 19-year-old also isn't a permanently lost cause on offense.

And let's not forget Brown's player-development reputation when it comes to Noel's defensive abilities.

As Elhassan notes, there's far more to defense than steals and shot-blocking. Defensive rotations and off-ball awareness won't elicit many SportsCenter Top 10 highlights, but the league's best defenders need a firm grasp on those fundamental concepts.

There's no guarantee that Noel will pick up on all of these defensive aspects quickly. It often takes big men years to grow fully comfortable patrolling the paint.

But given Brown's willingness to orchestrate a "total rebuild" of Noel's shot mechanics, is there any doubt that he'll also spend the requisite time coaching Noel up on the other end of the court?

Can anyone guarantee that Noel will eventually become an NBA superstar some day? Of course not. Brown's efforts to develop his offensive game could fall upon deaf ears, or the big man's knees could end up proving chronically balky.

When it comes to Noel's long-term potential, though, "fringe rotation" player isn't the best-case scenario.

Potential All-Star candidate is.