How a Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel Front Line Will Actually Work for Sixers Someday

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How a Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel Front Line Will Actually Work for Sixers Someday
Fernando Medina/Getty Images
Noel in his first live action in over a year.

You can't blame fans of the Philadelphia 76ers for getting excited during Orlando Summer League, especially when they got their first glimpse of Nerlens Noel this past Saturday in Orlando. 

All eyes were on the 2013 first-round pick who looked explosive on both ends of the floor, giving Philly fans a peek into what they hope is a very successful, not-too-distant future. 

That success, ultimately, is dependent upon dozens of factors, but none more important than the eventual pairing of Noel and 2014 first-round pick Joel Embiid—the 76ers' version of the "Twin Towers."

Noel and Embiid are two sides of the same coin. Both present tremendous potential as transcendent talents, and both suffered from injuries that caused them to slip in their respective drafts. If they were healthy, both would have been No. 1 overall picks. 

They each excel defensively, using their exceptional athleticism and length to terrorize opponents. They both need to work on different aspects of their offensive repertoire, adding post moves and improving outside shooting. 

Fernando Medina/Getty Images
Noel and Magic first-round pick Aaron Gordon Saturday in Orlando.

76ers general manager Sam Hinkie said in his post-draft press conference Embiid's recovery time from surgery on the navicular bone in his foot would be five to eight months. Based on how Philly handled Noel's injury last year, I wouldn't expect to see the No. 3 overall pick on the floor this season.

This leaves 76ers fans patiently waiting another year to see their future take shape, daydreaming about the highlight-reel blocks and thunderous dunks these two will inevitably show off once they join forces on the court.

Here's how these two important pieces will ultimately fit together, on both sides of the ball, when the tanking is over and it's time to return the 76ers to prominence. 

 

Offense

The biggest question marks regarding the potential success of this duo are on the offensive side of the ball.

What set Noel apart from the rest of the 2013 draft was his elite athleticism and explosiveness. On Saturday, he scored a game-high 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting with those attributes on full display. 

On his first possession, he threw down a strong up-and-under dunk, furiously releasing all the anxiety he's carried for the last year while nursing his injury. Later, he knocked down a floater in the lane on a hard drive to the hoop.

In what was probably his biggest offensive highlight of the day, he caught the ball at the top of the key, put his head down and drove past his defender. He initiated the contact, threw up a circus shot that went in and quickly jumped up from his awkward fall. 

Perhaps most importantly, he was perfect from the free-throw line, sinking all seven of his attempts. That's significant considering he shot 52.9 percent while at Kentucky. It's imperative Noel improves in that area, and the early results were encouraging. 

CSN Philly's Dei Lynam reported back in November the 76ers' coaching staff would be performing a "total rebuild" on Noel's shooting stroke. His flawless free throws were impressive, but the mechanics have yet to translate to his jumper.

On Saturday, in his few face-up attempts from mid-range he released the ball awkwardly, almost pulling the ball too far back behind his head, a la Kevin Garnett. His release never looked fluid. 

That part of his game will be essential to how he fits with Embiid offensively. 

Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Embiid's offensive game is more refined than Noel's, but he still has room for improvement.

Embiid is slightly more savvy in his post-up game than Noel, with a more traditional jumper. His mechanics are sound.  

He showed an array of post moves—drop steps, Dream shakes, spin moves—during his time at Kansas. His jump hook is smooth, and he certainly doesn't lack the physical stature to secure post position and bang underneath. 

Embiid needs to work on decision-making. He needs to get his game under control and not force wild shots. They are both skilled passers (Noel had three assists Saturday) and selfless enough to distribute the ball.

Fortunately, they both are so athletically gifted that they can put the ball on the ground and rip past slower defenders. This may be the best way for them to maximize their floor spacing until one of them, particularly Noel, improves his jumper. Otherwise, it will get crowded in the paint. 

 

Defense

This is where these two will thrive. Their defensive potential is through the roof. 

First, let's start with length. Embiid is a true 7-footer and sports a 7'5" wingspan. Noel is a hair over 6'10" with a ridiculous 7'4" wingspan. Good luck attacking the rim against them.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Noel led the SEC in blocks while at Kentucky.

You saw first hand on Saturday what inserting Noel's length into a lineup can do on the defensive end. He had four steals and one block while altering every shot in his path. 

His energy was electric. He attacked loose balls, dove into passing lanes and sprinted down the floor each possession. 

Both Noel and Embiid have plenty of spring in their step. Their length and athleticism will make opposing guards think twice about penetrating. Noel led the SEC in 2012-13 with 106 blocks, and Embiid was third in the Big 12 last season with 72. They both have enough lateral quickness, explosiveness and length to contest anything in the paint. 

While we finally witnessed the kind of impact Noel can have on a defense, we're only left to wonder what Embiid's eventual addition will mean. Based on what we saw in college, it's safe to assume Embiid will only fortify that defensive front. They have the potential to be the most athletic power forward/center combo in the league in a few years. 

Embiid finished first in the Big 12 in Total Rebound Percentage (20.5) and Defensive Rating (90.9), per Sports Reference. He's both taller and stronger than Noel, who at times got bullied out of position and mistimed block attempts which led to him being out of position for rebounds on Saturday. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Embiid will contest everything at the rim.

With this small sample size—two injury-shortened college seasons and 26 minutes of a summer league game—it's unclear what their specific defensive assignments will be. Their versatility will provide head coach Brett Brown with some different opportunities when devising defensive sets. 

Both have the ability to play one-on-one in the post and both will be excellent as help defenders, swatting away shots and contesting drives. Both are quick and long enough to excel at defending the pick and roll, which so much offense is predicated upon today. 

76ers fans have braced for another season without a star rookie, with the promise this Noel and Embiid front line will be the backbone of an eventual championship-caliber team. Rest easy, 76ers fans. They both will thrive as a devastating defensive combo, evolve offensively and will certainly restore credibility and respect to this storied franchise. 

Eventually. 

 

All collegiate statistics courtesy of Sports Reference. Follow Stephen on Twitter @S_Albertini

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