Nerlens Noel's return to the court for his rookie season will be just as anticipated.
The start of the 2014-15 NBA season will mark Noel's first meaningful game in over 20 months, so what do the Sixers need out of the former University of Kentucky product?
Quite a lot, actually.
Philadelphia knew that Noel had torn his left ACL only four months prior to the 2013 draft, yet they still traded away their best young player in hopes of what Noel could become. Giving up point guard Jrue Holiday for Noel and a potential 2014 first-round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans made Philadelphia's intentions clear. They felt that the 6'11" center had the potential to be a piece of the team's foundation moving forward.
Moving Holiday—who had just come off of an All-Star season as a 22-year-old—was the definition of a high-risk, high-reward maneuver.
Here's a look at what a high reward from Noel would consist of.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Noel went into the college game known as a defender, and he'll be going into his rookie NBA year with the same expectations.
We all know of him as a tall, lanky center with the ability to play power forward, but his most valuable assets are his anticipation and hustle after loose balls. Take a look at some of Noel's best defensive plays from his time at Kentucky and notice how often he made plays based off of his instincts and desire to get the ball.
Pretty crazy, right?
It's not rare to see a shooting guard or small forward making those kind of plays, but it is for guy of Noel's size.
Philadelphia has a chance to turn its league-worst 110.2 points per game against defense into a much more manageable one simply because of Noel's presence. He'll make four or five plays a game on defense that'll result in a missed shot or turnover. Four or five plays over the course of a contest doesn't sound like much, but if it results in around eight fewer points for the opposing team, then they really take on critical significance.
Ability to Play Above the Rim
The NBA is a league dominated by athleticism, and it doesn't look like that will be changing any time soon. The days of slow-footed power forwards and centers are behind us as there are only a few of them left in the league.
One of the most important tools for a big is to be able to play above the rim. Having solid positioning is the first step, but what separates one player from the rest once they're in the right spots?
A combination of physical tools and athleticism.
According to ESPN, Noel has a 7'4" wingspan with a standing reach at 9'2," so he clearly has the physical tools. According to Delaware County Daily Times writer Christopher A. Vito, Noel is on track to surpass his formal level of athleticism too:
#Sixers Nerlens Noel: "I'm 100 percent." Said he's stronger than he had been. Had increased vertical leap by 3 inches.— Christopher A. Vito (@ChrisVito) April 8, 2014
You didn't have to watch too many highlights of him at Kentucky to see how well he moved for his size. He exhibited lateral quickness and a top-end speed that made him a bit of a hybrid defender at the college level. He could guard up to three positions because of those athletic traits.
Being able to play above the rim impacts the ability to block shots, rebound and get the extra inch to finish an alley-oop. These little plays can end up being the difference between a win and loss at the end of a game, and Noel's ability to make them happen could be huge.
Nobody is saying that Noel needs to play in all 82 games next year. In fact, it's difficult to go through a lengthy NBA season and not miss one game. Still though, he didn't play at all during the 2013-14 season, and he needs to prove that his repaired left ACL is healthy enough to handle the rigors of a professional basketball campaign.
Will Nerlens Noel end up being one of Philadelphia's centerpieces?
Missing an entire season was the best option for Noel for a number of reasons. For one, it gave him the opportunity to rehab and use that full year to become mentally confident in his knee. The time away from competitive basketball also gave him an opportunity to work on his overall strength.
Philly.com's Marc Narducci was a part of a series of local reporters hearing from Noel for the first time since Media Day last fall. Here's what Noel had to say about how he's feeling and what his plans for the summer are:
I definitely feel I worked my butt off to get where I am at now and definitely feel confident I am at my best point and have increased my vertical leap and I have just built building up my body though this past year.
It is going to be a great summer. I am putting in a lot of work this summer and bring my game along and keep working and working.
Fans may have been a bit impatient over the past year, but we were able to understand that the building blocks for Noel's future were being put into place. He seems to understand the pressure to stay healthy and appears to be doing everything in his power to make sure that takes place.
If Noel's able to spend significantly more time on the court than on the bench, then the Sixers will be starting to get what they need out of Noel.
The high reward of the Sixers' trade could be close to coming to fruition.