BRETT BROWN likes to call it the compass. It is how he measures the direction the team is heading, the improvement his team has made, both as a unit and as individuals. His task, as we all know, is a rare one. Wins are not the measuring stick, as they are in almost every aspect of every sport. Instead, Brown oversees a coaching staff that is molding young, marginal NBA players into players who might have a future in this league, whether here or elsewhere.

There have been setbacks, no doubt. None was bigger than what happened at the trade deadline. In the previous 10 or so games before, the Sixers had been garnering some interest with their solid play and much improved defense. Then Michael Carter-Williams was dealt and the franchise was set on its ear, as its best player of the season to that point and one who many thought was the point guard of the future headed to Milwaukee.

I closely watched Brown the first game after the trade, against Indiana. He said all the right things to the media, he put his best face on and said he was behind what general manager Sam Hinkie had just done, but you could tell that the sudden moves were a punch in the gut. All the work to get things going in the right direction, mostly through MCW, had been wiped away in a deal that "blew away" Hinkie.

Brown now had to run his team with two backup point guards in Ish Smith and Isaiah Canaan. But, as is Brown's way, he swallowed hard and marched forward. And the improvement of some of his young players this season is a tribute to his player-development ability.

Let's take a look at what Brown and his staff have done with some of the youngsters:

* Nerlens Noel: There might be no one in the league who has improved as much this season as Noel. He has become a legitimate elite defensive player and is now getting comfortable enough to try new avenues in his offensive game. His numbers in March - 14.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 2.1 blocks - could be the first step up a ladder of improvement that could go very high.

Remember, too, Noel played only 24 games at Kentucky as a freshman before getting hurt and being drafted despite his knee injury. He really was a shot-blocking artist who got his points on put-backs and alley-oops. Rarely, if ever, did he have a play called for him. Any offensive consistency he shows now is directly due to the work Brown and his staff have invested.

* Jerami Grant: The 39th overall pick out of Syracuse, Grant came to the NBA without a position. As Brown says: "If you made me give you a quick answer [as to who has improved], I would say Jerami, coming from where he did, people not knowing his position. Can he dribble? Can he shoot? His ability to block shots and rebound and lead breaks and make some threes . . . "

Grant has gotten so much better in each of those areas, along with using his 6-8 frame to become a smothering defender. Here's some numbers to consider: During his 2 years at Syracuse, Grant shot 6-for-20 from three-point range, including 0-for-5 his sophomore season. This year, he has made 44 of 129 treys, good for 34.1 percent.

* JaKarr Sampson: Two years at St. John's produced a ton of points (18.3 average per 40 minutes) for Sampson, but didn't garner enough attention to get drafted. Under Brown, though, the 6-9 forward has improved enough that he could wind up with a long NBA career coming off the bench. It doesn't hurt that his attitude is top-notch.

* Robert Covington: Blessed with a silky-smooth jumper, Covington couldn't catch a break in the league until the Sixers signed him in mid-December. He has become so much better at knowing what a good shot is, when not to settle for jumpers and how to keep teammates involved. He should be a part of the rebuild here.

That's what the season is about. And when it ends a week from Wednesday, don't look at the win total. Look at the improvement of the young players. That will give you a fair assessment of the job Brown did this season.

"The one that's in our face [in terms of improvement], in all of our faces, is Nerlens, just because of numbers," Brown said. "I think that suddenly you can make the case for a bunch of them. I think that recently you can see why Sam had an interest in Furkan [Aldemir]. He does some things that are NBA skills, with his rebounding and his screen setting. I think if you went right down the track and see what JaKarr has done . . . Imagine if we started the year and said that JaKarr was going to start [30] games. He's been a 'four' man. He's been an NBA point guard. These record-breaking, 14 undrafted players that we've had come through our doors, everybody, I think, you can make a little bit of a case."

Upcoming games

Sixers (18-58) at Charlotte Hornets (32-42)

When: Tomorrow, 7 o'clock

Where: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/The Fanatic (97.5 FM)

Game stuff: The Hornets have seen their playoff hopes take a serious hit, as they won only three of their last 10 games and have fallen two games out of the last playoff spot, heading into yesterday's action. Center Al Jefferson has been bothered by a right knee that has been drained repeatedly of late.

Sixers at New York Knicks (14-61)

When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/The Fanatic (97.5 FM)

Game stuff: The lowly Knicks have lost eight straight. During that streak, they lost two games by 31 points and another three by 16 or more.

Washington Wizards (42-33) at Sixers

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Wells Fargo Center

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/The Fanatic (97.5 FM)

Game stuff: The Wizards manhandled the Sixers on Wednesday in the nation's capital, outrebounding them by 47-34 and finding plenty of open shooting areas. The game was orchestrated perfectly by John Wall, who dealt 15 assists and scored 13 points in the playoff-clinching win.

BY THE NUMBERS

5: That's how many double-doubles collected by Nerlens Noel over the past six games.

6: That's how many games in a row the Sixers have made 10 or more three-pointers. That is the first time in team history that has happened.

19: That's how many times the Sixers have attempted 30 or more threes in a game this season. They had done that only 15 times in franchise history before this season.

On Twitter: @BobCooney76

Blog: ph.ly/Sixerville