CLEVELAND - 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie got it right.

Everyone else undervalued Nerlens Noel.

Maybe it was because he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee the last time we saw him on the court at Kentucky. Maybe it had something to do with the 6-foot-11 center's tipping the scales at just 206 pounds at the 2013 NBA draft combine.

Somewhere along the line, Noel's perceived value diminished.

That led to the projected first overall pick's plummeting all the way down to the New Orleans Pelicans at the sixth spot. Even New Orleans wasn't interested.

The Pelicans sent Noel and their 2014 first-round pick to the Sixers in a trade for Jrue Holiday and a second-round pick. At the time, some criticized and even laughed at Hinkie for trading an all-star for an underweight and injured post player.

He didn't care.

In Noel, Hinkie saw a tenacious player in the middle, a defensive presence, a rim protector, and a young man capable of dominating for 15 years.

"Adding talent of Nerlens' caliber is really critical to build the kind of thing we want to build," Hinkie said during Noel's introductory news conference in July 2013.

No one is laughing at Hinkie these days.

Noel has a chance to make a stamp on this franchise not seen since Allen Iverson's reign on South Broad Street. The 20-year-old is garnering rookie of the year talk and starting to put up numbers comparable to those of NBA greats of the past.

The center, who sat out last season to rehabilitate his knee, has gotten better with each game. He had a career-high 30 points to go with 14 rebounds and two steals in a 119-98 setback to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

He became the first Sixers rookie to post at least 30 points and 14 rebounds since Billy Cunningham had 31 points and 16 boards against the St. Louis Hawks on Jan. 9, 1966. Clippers forward Blake Griffin (six times during the 2010-11 season) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (Nov. 29, 2003) were the league's last rookies to accomplish the feat.

Noel's performance came two days after he became the first rookie since former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson (Nov. 8, 1989) to finish with at least 14 points, 15 rebounds, 4 steals, and 4 blocks in the Sixers' 99-85 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Right now, he and Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Andrew Wiggins are the leading candidates to win rookie of the year.

"I know the question is centered on rookie of the year," coach Brett Brown recently said about Noel's deserving consideration. "But I think you look a little bit deeper.

"He's ours. He sure is making a tremendous step forward."

Translation: Winning rookie of the year would be nice. But with continued hard work, the former Kentucky standout has a chance to become an elite player like former Sixers Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, and Iverson.

Some could argue that averaging 9.9 points and a rookie-leading 8.1 rebounds isn't impressive enough to consider one day placing him on the Mount Rushmore of Sixers basketball. But being the only NBA player ranked in the top 10 in blocked shots (1.97 for fifth) and steals (1.81, ninth) is a good start.

Here's something else to consider: Noel has averaged 14.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 2.3 blocks, and 1.6 assists in his last 16 games.

Hinkie got it right. Some others didn't.

With the first pick in the 2013 draft, the Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett, a power forward out of UNLV. The Orlando Magic picked second and chose Indiana combo guard Victor Oladipo before Georgetown forward Otto Porter was selected third by the Washington Wizards.

By this time, the ESPN cameras had already zoomed in several times on Noel's disappointed face. And they weren't finished.

The Charlotte Hornets went with Indiana center Cody Zeller for the fourth pick overall, and the Phoenix Suns followed with Alex Len. Then Noel went sixth.

Last season, with Noel sitting out the whole campaign, no one really thought much about his being passed up.

But now that he's playing, it's clear that he has a very good chance to be the headliner of his draft class.

Of the five picked ahead of him, Oladipo is the only key player with his franchise. Len and Zeller are basically role players. Porter and Bennett, who was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in August, have been disappointments.

Luckily for the Sixers, Hinkie got it right.