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Time to Shine for Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel Following Joel Embiid's Setback

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2015

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We've always known that the Philadelphia 76ers' road ahead would be a long and trying one. And now that it may have gotten a bit longer, teammates Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel have become indispensable.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey reported on Saturday that big man Joel Embiid "will have a second surgery after the latest setback in the healing of his right foot, according to several NBA sources."

The fallout qualifies as far more than a mere setback.

"I would say there's a great possibility that Embiid won't play next year," said one source, per Pompey. "Just think how long they sat him when they thought he was healthy."

Silver lining notwithstanding, another year away from the game is awful news for Embiid. And it comes in the wake of an already long journey.

CSNPhilly.com's John Gonzalez outlined the recent evolution of Embiid's increasingly worrisome outlook:

After a recent routine CT scan revealed "less healing than anticipated," Embiid consulted with a doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Embiid also traveled to North Carolina earlier this month, where he received another opinion from a specialist in orthopedic surgery. The decision for Embiid to have a second procedure on his navicular bone was made thereafter, sources indicated.

It remains to be seen how the protracted ordeal will impact Embiid's career at large. Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine recently drew a couple of comparisons with entirely different outcomes:

That's the same bone broken by Houston Rockets giant Yao Ming, who suffered multiple fractures that would eventually prompt his retirement. It's also, however, the one broken by former Cleveland Cavaliers great Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who missed the lion's share of three seasons and underwent three separate surgeries on the bone before eventually being able to stay on the court, playing another decade and making a pair of All-Star appearances.

Along those lines, Pompey also notes, "The Sixers are planning as if Embiid won't play this season, sources say. Another source said the franchise is concerned that this setback could be career-threatening."

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 3:  Joel Embiid #11 of the Philadelphia 76ers behind the scenes during the 2014 NBA rookie photo shoot on August 3, 2014 at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
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Whatever the future holds, the present has come into much clearer view—a stark contrast from the way 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie described the situation shortly after last month's draft.

"That's part of what makes this—maybe confusing is the right word—confusing for [Embiid], but confusing because he feels great," Hinkie told reporters at the time. "He says, 'I can't believe how good I feel. I've felt great for a while. It's hard to believe something could be wrong.'"

Now we know something is assuredly wrong.

The 2014 No. 3 overall draft pick would have competed with Okafor and Noel for minutes in the painted area, perhaps forcing the organization to trade one of the prized assets. But now Hinkie has some time to think about his roster, while Okafor and Noel have a legitimate opportunity to develop as hallmarks of the rotation.

The Sixers selected Okafor out of Duke with the No. 3 overall pick in last month's draft and acquired Noel from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for point guard Jrue Holiday in 2013. Noel averaged 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.8 steals in 30.8 minutes per contest last season for the Sixers. He's quickly emerged as one of the league's up-and-coming interior defenders, and he's a beastly athlete with all kinds of vertical reach.

¬ NEW YORK,NY - APRIL 5: Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on April 5, 2015 in New York, New York NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using
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Put simply, he's an ideal complement to Okafor—an offensive force in the low post who still needs to work on his defensive game. That's a nice one-two punch, and there should be plenty of two-way contributions between them.

It's a bit hard to see where Embiid fits in that scenario. Having sat out last season, he'd ostensibly be suited to life as a sixth man off the bench, manning the 4 or 5 spot when Okafor and/or Noel take a seat.

And such an arrangement might have made sense for now but not for long. There's too much talent among those three guys to distribute among two positions. Now Okafor and Noel have a legitimate opportunity to take ownership of those two spots—and they're almost certain to make the most of it.

Noel has already done his part after sitting out the 2013-14 season with an injury of his own. The early returns on Okafor are promising, as well. He's already impressed his new frontcourt mate.

"I think he's been great," Noel told the Associated Press, via ESPN.com. "He's getting better and better, more comfortable and more comfortable. He's only going to get better from this point.

"I think we'll be able to do a lot of great things on the court—we all have different abilities and do different things—as we get more acquainted with each other."

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

While Okafor and Noel won't play every minute together, they'll enjoy clearly defined roles from the season's outset. They'll also have a chance to develop in those roles without worrying about losing a starting job to Embiid—at least for now. Head coach Brett Brown can remain patient in his club's ongoing rebuilding process, and Sixers fans can at least sort of enjoy the show.

Nothing about this is fair to Embiid, and his career may well blossom into a successful one in time. But that time isn't now apparently

For their part, the Sixers are still waiting to make an official announcement. The last word from Hinkie came on Thursday, and it was anything but definitive.

"No change as of yet," he told reporters. "A number of meetings are happening about that, even one today. But we have meetings almost every day about that. We don't have anything ready to announce."

That's bound to change soon enough. And unless there's a stunning reversal, that announcement could well seal Embiid's fate this season—even as it opens an invaluable door for Philly's other two big men.

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