Nerlens Noel's Return Will Be Key to Philadelphia 76ers' Turnaround

R. Cory SmithSenior Writer IJanuary 15, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers poses for pictures during Media Day on September 27, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE  (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers have experienced an up-and-down season in 2013 that boiled over to the 2014 portion. Unfortunately, there has been a lot more down than up.

But things are looking up once again for the 76ers, with Nerlens Noel officially being cleared to practice. Noel could return shortly after the All-Star Break, according to Jeff Goodman of ESPN.

After starting off the season well without the rookie center, Philadelphia looked like a team that could contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But since their 3-0 start to the season, the 76ers have won just nine games and lost 25 to sit at 13th in the East, ahead of only the Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks.

Interestingly enough, Noel will be returning to a team at a time when the pressure won't be on him to perform as the best rookie, despite being the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. The 76ers already have a lethal scoring threat and the leading Rookie of the Year contender on their team with Michael Carter-Williams, according to the current Rookie Ladder.

Despite Carter-Williams' success on the scoring end and as the steals leader in the NBA, the 76ers are currently lacking a defensive presence. Though they are averaging more than 100 points per game this season, they are also allowing an average of more than 110 points, ranking last in the NBA in that category.

Noel, at 6'11", adds another body down low and isn't afraid to take on fellow big men. At Kentucky, Noel made a name for himself more for his defense than his offensive numbers.

In just 24 games last season with the Wildcats before a torn ACL would cost him the rest of the year, Noel put up good offensive numbers with 10.5 points per game. But on the defensive end, Noel shined with 106 blocks, 50 steals and 162 of his 227 rebounds coming on defense.

But even with Noel's presence on both the offensive and defensive end, the question remains: Will the 76ers really attempt to make the playoffs or work more toward their positioning in the upcoming NBA draft?

Goodman brought up the question in a tweet following the announcement that Noel would be able to return soon:

With the premiere of Noel coming soon for the Sixers, he will be a key to their turnaround in the Eastern Conference. If they're interested in contending this season, they could still make the playoffs over teams like the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats, who are in postseason spots as the Nos. 6, 7 and 8 seeds in the conference.

But with a great draft class that includes sparkling freshmen like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle alongside players like Marcus Smart and Dante Exum, Philly could decide to mainly focus on the upcoming draft.

Regardless of the direction that the 76ers decide to go, the return of Noel is certainly welcome for a team that is one of the worst defensively in the league. With Noel finally on the court, Philly officially has a healthy young nucleus to build around alongside Carter-Williams and Evan Turner.