HIS WORDS were almost as bold as his center's play of late. Following Wednesday's 99-85 win at Denver, 76ers coach Brett Brown emphatically stated: "People have to really start talking about him for rookie of the year. You don't just repetitively bang out these types of performances and produce the numbers that he is producing. He is a complete game changer. He is a complete defensive presence when he's lurking to block shots. He just continues to improve at this time of year. He keeps moving up the food chain and heading in the direction that we're all so thrilled about."

Nerlens Noel's progression certainly wasn't projected by anyone to be this quick. He has become a defensive monster in the lane. It isn't just one way in which he is doing it. And that may be what is most impressive.

When/if he is teamed with Joel Embiid next season, Noel will become the defender of power forwards, as opposed to the centers he is guarding now. But because he is Brown's only legit big man now, his matchups are against much stronger low-post players most games. He has learned how to use his speed and terrific footwork to circle around bigger defenders in an attempt to deter passes to the low post. If he does get backed down, he uses his guard-like quick hands to poke the ball away from big men as they dribble with their backs to him.

But his most eye-opening performance may have come on Tuesday in Sacramento when he battled against DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings' center combines power and finesse (mostly power) in a game that is mostly unstoppable. Instead of relying on his quickness to combat Cousins, Noel went toe-to-toe with him. It was like watching a tactical boxer deciding to throw haymakers against an opponent.

Noel got himself in foul trouble and Cousins went for 33 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks and four steals in the Kings' win. But Noel, who had 14 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks, showed a toughness that many didn't believe he had coming into the season.

He has played 68 of the team's 72 games. He has battled through nicks and bruises throughout. He has gotten in better shape, become so much tougher around the rim with his shot-blocking and rebounding and has become more confident around the rim at the offensive end.

Rookie of the year? Perhaps. His averages of 9.6 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and 1.8 steals put him in the mix with Andrew Wiggins, Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic. He is the only player in the NBA in the top 10 in steals and blocks, and since the All-Star break he leads the league in rejects and is second in steals.

Rookie of the year? Ask his coach.

Ideal point guard

It isn't a secret that the Sixers have struggled at the point guard position since the All-Star break, with Brett Brown using the combination of Ish Smith and Isaiah Canaan. While both have shown flashes, there have also been some mighty tough times to endure. Brown was asked what more he needed to see from the point position and directed most of his answer towards Smith, probably because Canaan, though 5-10, is more of a shooting guard than lead guard.

I then pressed the coach as to what is his ideal point guard.

"I wouldn't want me," he said, joking of his style of play for coach Rick Pitino at Boston University, where Brown was known to like to launch. "Just a traditional point guard like back in the day. You shot seven times, six times. In the NBA it's different. You need to do both. You need to score when scoring is required. You need to pass when passing is required. All this attention now because of Steve Nash's retirement, it just makes me revisit just how perfect a point guard he was. I'm watching him on Youtube because there are messages all over the place that I can give my young guys. You're going through a game and he's got 38, he's got 40, he's got 42, he's got 46. He's just going to work against Dallas in Phoenix. You're reminded that he could score when he wanted to. But, man, could he run a team and hit A'mare [Stoudemire] rolling. That's the hybrid. In my perfect world, you want both."

Eyes wide open

Brett Brown is going into the last 10 games with a devlish grin on his face. It's not because the end of the grind is within reach. It's because he can't wait for his team to finish out the season with games against teams gearing up for the playoffs. Among the teams the Sixers will face are the Clippers, Cleveland, Washington [twice], Charlotte, Chicago, Milwaukee and Miami. Brown wants his players to notice what those teams possess in the form of mental and physical toughness. He wants them to witness up close how the game goes to a new level when the playoffs are looming.

"I can't wait for my team to see what it's like for teams that are getting ready for the playoffs, where their play gets amped up and how much harder they are playing," he said. "That is a great way for us to finish our season."

Upcoming games

Los Angeles Clippers (47-25) at Sixers (18-54)

When: Tonight, 7 o'clock

Where: Wells Fargo Center

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

Game stuff: Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is shooting 71.3 percent from the floor this season. The record for shooting percentage in a season is 72.7 percent by Wilt Chamberlain (1972-73). The Clippers will come into this one on a five-game winning streak.

Sixers at Cleveland Cavaliers (47-26)

When: Sunday, 4:30 p.m.

Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland

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

Game stuff: After trouncing the Grizzlies in Memphis on Wednesday, Cleveland had won four straight and eight of its last nine. The Cavaliers are now 38-5 when scoring 100 or more points.

Los Angeles Lakers (19-51) at Sixers

When: Monday, 7 o'clock

Where: Wells Fargo Center

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

Game stuff: Backup point guard Jeremy Lin has been playing well of late, starting with his 29-point effort against the Sixers on Sunday when the Lakers won, 101-87. After their win in Minnesota on Wednesday, the Lakers had won two of three.

Sixers at Washington Wizards (40-32)

When: Wednesday, 7 o'clock

Where: Verizon Center

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

Game stuff: The reeling Wizards lost for the fourth-straight time on Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers. In that game, guard John Wall scored a season-high 34 points. Guard Bradley Beal sprained his ankle in the game and is day-to-day.

By the numbers

36 & 20.5: Those are the average points and rebounds Kings center DeMarcus Cousins put up against the Sixers in two games this season.

15, 11.5, 3.8: That's the average in points, rebounds and blocks by Nerlens Noel over the past four games.

On Twitter: @BobCooney76

Blog: ph.ly/Sixerville