It's hard to believe how long it's been since Nerlens Noel last played.
Eighteen months ago—February 2013 was when he tore his ACL against Florida while attempting a chase-down block off a 70-foot sprint.
Noel sat out his entire rookie season after the Philadelphia 76ers traded up for him in the 2013 NBA draft. Considering the last competitive game he played in came a year and a half ago, immediate expectations should be somewhat tempered.
But how about that summer league debut?
I'm not sure he could have asked for a better one, having gone for 19 points, four steals and a block in 26 minutes. He flashed the bounce and athleticism we saw at Kentucky, along with some newly polished touch and footwork.
Noel played 24 games in college, and not once did he hit the 20-point mark. Though there's a lot less structure in summer league than there is under John Calipari, this offensive debut from Noel should have been awfully encouraging.
"I haven't been thinking about the knee for many months now," Noel told ESPN's Michael Wallace. "So I'm definitely going to continue to get it strong, as strong as possible and continue working. It's very validating. It's been 18 months since I played an organized game, and I felt great today. I'm real happy, but I can't get too happy because it's a long road ahead of me."
He did sit the following summer league game for precautionary reasons, which just goes to show how careful the Sixers might be with him. Without any rush to win now, expectations for Noel this season should include limited playing time and occasional missed games.
I wouldn't be surprised if they covered Noel in bubble wrap and slapped a "fragile" stamp on his chest.
But when he gets going, there's no mystery as to what he's bringing. At 6'11" with a near 7'4" wingspan, top-shelf athleticism and a live motor, Noel is a monster offensive target and a disruptive defensive presence.
Offensively, he's an easy-bucket machine off drive-and-dishes, pick-and-rolls, lobs, dump passes and misses. In his one-and-done season at Kentucky, Noel shot 59 percent from the floor and 76 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math.
He isn't too polished in terms of creating one-on-one offense—don't expect the Sixers to consistently feature him in the post.
However, facing up, his foot speed and body control make him a tough cover from the elbows, where he uses angles to attack and either hand to finish on the move.
Listed at 228 pounds, Noel will need a few years to add some bulk to his frame and lower body. While he's capable of separating down low into jump hooks with his back to the rim, don't be shocked if he struggles to score against heavier, more physical centers. Some of the top dogs at his position will have a good 30-40-pound advantage.
But it's that defensive end where you can expect Noel to really shine right off the bat. He gets his hands on everything. Noel has tremendous shot-blocking instincts as a rim protector—he was leading the country in blocks per game as a freshman before going down with the injury.
And it's not just at the rim where Noel can really wreak havoc. Thanks to his length and lateral quickness, he also offers valuable pick-and-roll defense outside the paint.
At this point, it seems safe to assume that most of Noel's production as a rookie will be fueled by his physical tools, athleticism, motor and instincts. Offensively, he's going to be a guy who makes plays without the ball in his hands, as opposed to someone you'd feed the ball to against a set defense and expect a bucket in return. At the other end, his size, mobility and anticipation should result in blocks, deflections, steals, over-passing and hesitation. He's one of those players who can seemingly be in two places at once.
In between, Noel offers a high basketball IQ, tremendous work ethic and plenty of energy.
But don't go crazy if he doesn't end up in the Rookie of the Year race. The appeal to Noel really stems from his long-term potential, given his exciting offensive upside and towering defensive ceiling. ESPN's Ryan Feldman noted that Noel ranked as the top prospect in the 2013 draft class from an analytics perspective.
My guess is Noel will average around just 20-25 minutes a night in what should be another throwaway season in Philadelphia. Still, with that time and a year of good health, expect him to inject this Sixers' frontcourt with immediate life, activity and an above-the-rim presence.
I'm going to write Noel down for roughly 11 points, seven boards and nearly two blocks a game in 2014-15.