Sixers Proving Rehab Plan Worked with Nerlens Noel, Will Work with Joel Embiid

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2014

The Philadelphia sports faithful have never been defined by their patience or understanding, even if general manager Sam Hinkie has indicated otherwise in recent weeks.  

Which is what's made Hinkie's thoughtful, calculated and drawn out rebuild of the Philadelphia 76ers painful for some to stomach. 

But as fans will soon realize, patience is a virtue. Especially when it comes to waiting for talented big men to heal. 

For the second year in a row, Hinkie and the front office went out on a limb, selecting the draft's best talent available despite the accompanying injury concerns. 

However, as many are now realizing, that strategy may very well be the one best suited for a rebuild of this magnitude.

The year-long wait to see Nerlens Noel in all of his flat-topped glory running the hardwood was painful at times (remember that 26-game losing streak?), but the potential rewards he has to offer are starting to come to light. 

Now, with Joel Embiid rehabbing from a stress fracture that will sideline him for five to eight months, according to CSN Philly, it's time to examine how the Sixers' seemingly successful approach with Noel will translate to their latest first-round pick. 


Lessons Learned

When the Sixers shook up the foundation of their roster by trading Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Nerlens Noel and a lottery pick that turned into Dario Saric at the 2013 draft, a mix of outrage and confusion enveloped the team's fanbase. 

Gone was the team's newly-minted All-Star, who was immediately replaced by a rookie point guard and his former AAU running mate, Noel. 

But after Noel tore the ACL in his left knee the preceding February, Hinkie made it clear that the shot-blocking extraordinaire wouldn't be lacing up his kicks at the professional level for some time. 

The rehabilitation process was long. It was arduous. And boy did it test the fans' patience. 

The long wait time even took a toll on Noel, who told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling back in May that he became a bit antsy as his health started to improve: 

I had a lot of "I just want to play" moments, he said. But I just channeled all my aggression of wanting to play into my rehab, knowing that the harder I work, the harder I'm going to come back.

Noel's fortitude was also rewarded in the form of constant instruction from head coach Brett Brown, who took the center under his wing in order to hone his offensive skills and reconstruct his jump shot. 

"With Nerlens' shot, it was everything—and I mean everything," Brown said, according to Zwerling. "We had to start from ground zero."

This was far from your run-of-the-mill rehab process. Special circumstances applied, as Noel told Zwerling: 

Early in the season, some people around the NBA would say, "It's crazy that your head coach is working with you so much," Noel said. Even my agent said, "It's not common to see a head coach working with a player." As the season went along, I really didn't see any head coaches working with their players before games. I'm really lucky and thankful to have a coach like Brett Brown.

And now that Noel boasts a clean bill of health, we're starting to see those one-on-one sessions pay off in the form of tangible, on-court results. 


Early Returns

Our exposure to Noel on a professional scale has been limited to three Orlando Summer League games, but what we've seen thus far has been positive. 

Forget the statistics and tactical minutiae for a moment. 

The most important facet of the process was to nurse Noel back to health. At this stage, it's clear that he's showing no ill effects from the ligament tear, exemplified by his ability to crisply run the floor and willingness to dive for loose balls. 

There have been no visible limitations, and that alone means the Sixers played this one intelligently. 

In his first NBA Summer League action against the Orlando Magic, Noel displayed the athleticism and shot-blocking prowess that once made him a consensus No. 1 overall pick. 

In 26 minutes, Noel racked up a game-high four steals to go with one rejection, numbers that are indicative of what a defensive nightmare he may eventually develop into. 

Then, against Houston, he emphatically swatted three shots and racked up two more steals. 

The real progress, though, was evident on offense. 

Not only did Noel lead all scorers with 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting against Orlando, but he demonstrated the ability to score from a number of different spots on the floor. 

First, he was using an up-and-under move to shake his defender for an easy slam: 

Then he was putting the rock on the deck and using straight line drives to finish through contact:

And let's not forget the free-throw shooting. 

During his lone season at the University of Kentucky, Noel shot 52.9 percent from the charity stripe on an average of 4.3 attempts per game. 

Nerlens Noel in Orlando Summer League (Through 3 Games)

But against the Magic, Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets, Noel flashed his new and improved stroke. Thus far, he's nailed 15 of 19 freebies, including his first nine in a row. 

If he can show a similar competency at the line once the regular season gets underway, he'll be well on his way to proving Hinkie wrong in at least one department, according to CSN Philly's Dei Lynam

I have worked very hard on my free throws through this past week. Even yesterday, I shot 40 free throws and made 33. I was feeling great coming into today.

I remember (general manager) Sam (Hinkie) saying work on 60 percent. I told Sam I would surpass that. I worked as hard as I could to shoot a lot better than 60 percent. It is going to take time, but working hard helps.

Limitations were admittedly evident when Noel tried catching and shooting from mid-range or posting up against more physically imposing defenders on the blocks, but it was refreshing to see the wiry big find ways to score in ways that many other centers cannot.


Applying the Strategy to Embiid

Trying to determine the team's course of action with Embiid won't be difficult. Hinkie's admitted as much. 

"Guess what our approach will be," Hinkie said with a smile, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN). "We'll focus on the long-term health of the player."

However, Embiid's case figures to differ from Noel's in that his offensive repertoire is significantly more polished than Noel's was at this time last year.

Embiid's stroke is not in need of a complete rebuild. In fact, his offensive game is surprisingly multi-faceted for a player who's just starting to scratch the surface of his massive potential. 

Not only has he shown some advanced skill on the low block with his back to the basket, but Embiid, like Noel, is comfortable putting the ball on the floor for a strong dribble or two in order to shake his man and get easier looks. 

A 68.5 percent shooter from the line and 62.6 percent shooter from the field last season at Kansas, Embiid laid a nice offensive foundation that will come in handy when working with the Sixers' coaching staff throughout the upcoming season.

Sure, the recovery process will be painstaking for fans who crave instant gratification. But as's Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote shortly after the draft, the Sixers should be embracing the long game: 

Actually, the waiting might be the point. So long as the Sixers aren’t close to great, they might as well be horrible. They might as well keep taking valued players who can’t demonstrate value on the court. They might as well keep doing this for a while because the NBA’s incentive structure is a little nuts. The worst of the losers get rewarded with the best of young talent. 

While the franchise will be ripped in some corners for tanking, that's not what this strategy amounts to.

"Losing is a byproduct of the Sixers rebuild, not the point of it," Liberty Ballers' Michael Levin recently tweeted. 

And he's absolutely right. 

Bemoaning losses in the short-term and ignoring the prosperity Hinkie has set the franchise up for is terribly shortsighted. 

Patience may be a foreign concept to some of the Philadelphia faithful, but exercising a bit of it over the next two or three years could result in tremendous gratification down the line. 


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