SAN ANTONIO - Seven games certainly isn't a good sample size for anything when it comes to an individual, particularly one who hadn't played an organized game of basketball for nearly 20 months.

But Nerlens Noel is under the microscope in Philadelphia, as he is expected to be a key piece in The Plan that general manager Sam Hinkie is orchestrating.

There have been a couple of highlights, like when he runs the floor offensively and gets rewarded with a basket simply because he outran his defender.

There are the crazy quick hands that often swipe the ball out of an unsuspecting big man's grasp.

There isn't a shot taken in the lane when Noel is in the game that you don't expect him to come flying through the air with right arm cocked, ready to serve the ball in the other direction.

But there are concerns, also. His rebounding, specifically in traffic, has been pretty much nonexistent. There has really been no offensive game to speak of; when he gets the ball, he is either too quick to try to do something or attempts a still-awkward jumper.

The goal is for him to develop a strong, signature move to the basket - one power dribble to either side and a power layup or dunk. But so far that hasn't come about. There has been foul trouble and a lingering concern with his conditioning.

The hope is that the more he plays, the more of a read coach Brett Brown and his teammates will get on Noel. For now, it's just sort of hit-and-miss. It was surprising that Brown did not have Noel in the game Friday when Houston inbounded the ball after a timeout, trailing by one with 16.9 seconds to go. For now, though, Brown know what he needs from the 6-11, 220-pounder.

"To provide a reckless, kamikaze energy where he is a shot blocker, he is a rim runner, he is a chest bumper, he is passionate," Brown said of Noel, who is averaging 7.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.57 blocks per game . "That's what he is. He's just energy and an athlete right now. Hopefully that will be refined in the upcoming years, but let's just take what he currently is and maximize it.

"And we're trying to gauge his wind. He's not a high-minute player right now in regards to chunks of minutes. I believe he's a 4-minute guy, almost max, right now. He'll end up with 28 to 32, but I don't play him long stretches because I see his energy dwindle.

"[Houston] leads the NBA in three-point attempted, second in percentage, first in makes - they just rattle off stuff that reeks of 'Wow, you gotta get back.' And they have a presence like Dwight [Howard]. So Nerlens, if he's playing as a 'four' man, he's coming back and he's trying to navigate where the perimeter shooters are. That's a different world than he played in Kentucky, where he just ran back to the rim. Part of the challenge is trying to see whether he can play with Joel Embiid as a 'four' man. It's energy. It's sprinting one way, it's sprinting the other way."

It's a work in progress.

In & out

Forward Robert Covington was on the floor with the team yesterday at the AT&T Center after having signed the day before. To make room, the Sixers released guard Chris Johnson.

"First and foremost, I have to play defense," said Covington, just moments after Brett Brown said the same thing. "You're not going to get possessions on the offensive end if you don't get stops."

As for his offense, Covington said: "I can do a lot of things, it's not just shooting. I can cut to the basket, crash the offensive glass and also create opportunities for my teammates."

Although he has limited time to familiarize himself with the Sixers, it wouldn't be surprising if Covington gets some time tonight against the Spurs.

The 6-9, 215-pound Covington, undrafted in 2013 after 4 years at Tennessee State, played seven games for the Houston Rockets last season but made his mark in the Development League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In 42 games, he averaged 23 points, nine rebounds and 2.4 steals. He also shot 37 percent from three-point range, draining 3.2 per game. He was named the league's rookie of the year as well as a first-team all-league player.

On Twitter: @BobCooney76
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