We've seen a lot of sharp performances so far in summer league, but none has been more encouraging than what we've seen from Nerlens Noel, who, prior to July, hadn't played in a competitive game since February 2013.
Quite frankly, just seeing him out there on the floor and active should be viewed as a promising sign for Philadelphia 76ers fans.
Noel had a ton of questions surrounding his outlook heading into last year's draft. He had just torn his ACL and then weighed in at 218 pounds at the NBA combine—a scary number for a projected center.
And despite his appeal as a rim protector, Noel never showed much of an offensive game in his one-and-done year at Kentucky.
All of these factors likely contributed to Noel's slide to No. 6 in the draft, despite many projecting him as the potential No. 1 pick.
Based on what we've seen so far through a couple of summer-league games, I'd imagine at least four of the teams that passed will end up regretting not taking a chance.
With four summer-league games under his belt, it's time to evaluate Noel's performance.
It sure doesn't look like Noel is coming off major knee surgery, although it did occur 18 months ago.
He's moving great. Noel doesn't appear to be hesitating or second-guessing. He's getting up and down the floor and elevating high above the rim.
Noel told ESPN's Michael Wallace:
I haven't been thinking about the knee for many months now. 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.
It looks like he's got the spring back in his legs. Through four games, Noel has picked up nine dunks already, with four of them coming in transition after running the length of the floor.
Noel's mobility and athleticism are what ultimately fuel his strengths as a finisher and shot-blocker. And they've been on point so far in summer league.
He's been the most explosive big man on the floor in each game he's played in. And that alone should allow fans to consider his summer-league performance successful.
Noel's skills have always been behind his physical tools. Scoring was never his forte—he didn't hit the 20-point mark once in his 24 college games played.
But so far, we've seen a different Noel in summer league—a Noel with actual moves to go to, along with some touch we haven't seen before.
In four games, he's hit five lefty jump hooks, an 18-foot jumper, a floater in the lane and a couple of pretty driving layups.
We've even seen him face the rim from the elbow and attack off the bounce. And after shooting just 52.9 percent from the foul line in college, he's hit his first 15 of 20 free throws.
Noel has flashed some shot creativity he didn't showcase much at Kentucky. And he's executing, shooting at a 54.2 percent clip on 35 field-goal attempts.
He's no Hakeem Olajuwon—Noel's moves still lack fluidity, and though the jumper he hit and the free throws he's made spell promise, his scoring repertoire is clearly a work in progress.
Still, Noel's skill set looks undoubtedly sharper and more polished than when we last saw him in action.
Defense, Rim Protection
The real attraction to Noel as a prospect stems from his defensive potential. At 6'11" with quick feet and a 7'4" wingspan, he takes up space and covers a ton of ground.
And so far in Orlando and Vegas, he's been all over the floor at the defensive end.
In four games, he's blocked 13 shots and collected nine steals.
Noel just has terrific timing and instincts as a shot-blocker, and they don't appear to have faded during his time off.
He's even been a defensive pest away from the rim, where he's pickpocketing ball-handlers, getting deflections and intercepting entry passes.
The only knock on Noel defensively has been the fouls. He recently picked up seven (you get 10 in summer league) in just under 29 minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers and five in 26 minutes against the Orlando Magic.
Noel has been a bit sloppy with the ball, and that's slightly related to a skill set that still needs polish. It also obviously has to do with missing so much time.
He's got 11 turnovers through four games. Seven of them have come off strips or lost balls.
Noel will ultimately have to become stronger with the ball in his hands when operating in traffic, which is where he's going to be most of the time—right around the key and low block.
However, he has made some beautiful passes so far, whether it's been a touch pass on the interior or the extra pass on the perimeter.
Noel has a sharp offensive IQ out there. As he tightens up his game, he'll likely get more comfortable operating under pressure.
Realistically, I'm not sure the Sixers coaching staff or fans could have asked for much more this early—even if it is just summer league.
He's flashed the same bounce, athleticism and defensive prowess that we saw before the injury, along with an improved offensive skill set we didn't.
At this point, Noel looks 100 percent ready to roll for Philadelphia. And I wouldn't be surprised if he gave Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins a serious run for their money in the Rookie of the Year race.
Of course, the sample size we've seen is tiny, but considering we haven't been able to evaluate Noel for over a year, an early report seemed necessary.
For what it's worth, he's aced his preliminary NBA test.
Overall Grade: A-
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