Nerlens Noel's play is a solid sign for Sixers
Nerlens Noel’s play represents a bright spot in an already gloomy season for the Sixers.
Nerlens Noel sat slumped in front of his locker on Saturday night, his head in his hands, talking on his cell phone in a low, inaudible tone.
Noel had just played his first home NBA game of his young career, and it hadn't gone as well as he had hoped. Days earlier Noel had talked about aiming each game for a double-double and then building out the box score from there. With a final stat sheet in that showed only two points and five rebounds, he had fallen well short of those marks in his first game in front the Philadelphia faithful.
Though he had just downplayed it to the mass of media members huddled around him in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center, he was clearly upset with his performance.
Noel yearns to be great. He truly cares about basketball. You could see it on his face in Brooklyn at the 2013 Draft, when after being hyped as the probable top pick for much of the college season, injury issues forced him to slip to sixth, and you could read it in his body language after his first game in Philadelphia.
After sitting on the sideline for an entire season, Noel wants to give the fan base, and the franchise that took a risk on him, something to get excited about. Two points and five rebounds in 25 minutes wasn't that.
"It's definitely an adjustment," he said when asked about appearing fatigued on the second night of a back-to-back. "I haven't played back-to-back since AAU in high school, and that was a long time ago."
Noel did appear fatigued, but for a player who hadn't played in over a year and whose last true competition was against 19-year old college kids, some fatigue from battling the NBA's bigs on consecutive evenings seems reasonable.
Noel will have nights like that. Most players do. What is important is that he is able to overcome and learn from it
"I think it's only a matter of time," he said of getting used to the wear-and-tear of the NBA grind.
Three nights later, an energized Noel was back out in front of the Wells Fargo Center crowd. In a tough loss to the Rockets - where Noel had to battle with the formidable and physical frontcourt of Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard - the former Kentucky Wildcat continued to show signs of just how valuable a player he can become.
Physically over-matched by Howard, Noel relied on athleticism, instincts, and active hands to battle back and be a deterrent defensively. Noel finished with six steals, and one extremely memorable block.
Dwight got his, as he usually does, but Noel showed flashes of defensive dominance against one of the league's best and most physically-imposing centers. Most everyone watching the game agreed that the rookie held his own, and one Houston-based observer even felt that Noel had the upper hand:
Noel's ability to find a multitude of ways to impact the game from the defensive end is extremely promising, and right in line with the projection of him as a true paint protector. Also, for a guy that was largely hyped as a one-side-of-the-ball player, Noel has been able to make an impact offensively. Noel may never be a top-two offensive option on an NBA team, but with Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric - and a plethora of picks, assets, and signings to come - he isn't expected to be.
Noel has demonstrated the ability to finish around the rim, and to put himself in position to score. The touch isn't there yet, but that may come with time. His shot has markedly improved, as it now looks more than a smooth stroke than a violent twitch. He hit an open 16-footer against Houston, and was nailing 20-footers during the halftime shootaround with ease. Noel is explosive and athletic enough to average double-digits by default, and the insertion of other impact players into the lineup, starting with Michael Carter-Williams, will aid him offensively.
He plays an energetic, exciting game - and man, can he ignite a crowd on both ends of the ball. He makes the kind of plays that get people out of their seats, be it dunk-defying blocks at the rim on James Harden, or steals leading to fast break slams. Like Michael Carter-Williams last year, Noel's play represents a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy season for the Sixers.
Noel is far from a complete or perfect player. It is exceedingly clear that he needs to work on his size and stamina in order to compete every night at the highest level, and he needs to continue to improve all aspects of his offense. In short, Noel still has a lot to learn.
But after only a handful of professional games, Noel has already shown signs of just how valuable and impactful he can be for the Sixers' franchise and its future.