For the first time since they became teammates, Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel were in uniform together for a 76ers game. It was a neat little trick for Monday's Fan Appreciation Night. The Sixers' players and fans held a pregame jersey swap, and Embiid - sitting out this season so his surgically repaired right foot can be at full strength next season - wore warm-ups so he could participate.
The team's social-media gurus couldn't help but tease everyone by posting a photo of Embiid with an enticing caption: "Look who's dressed." It was only that, a tease, the latest in a season-long succession of posts and Vine videos in a not-so-subtle campaign to get people excited about the 2015-16 Sixers and Embiid's presumptive debut this fall.
Embiid did a churning-butter-style dance as the Sixers' starting lineup was introduced, took off the blue jacket, and sat on the bench as the medical and training staff treated his foot, after which the Sixers went about the business at hand and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in overtime, 113-111.
Still, Embiid and Noel, together. This was worth thinking about. Starting again at power forward, Noel had another of those nights that he's had often lately, when he bounds around the court like Tigger in a high-top fade: 19 points, 14 rebounds, one lefthanded game-tying floater with 12.9 seconds left in OT, three alley-oop dunks.
The move of Noel from center to the four spot is preparation for next season, when Embiid is supposed to enter the starting lineup. "It'll take a little more time for me to master it," Noel said. But it might turn out to be a necessary rite of passage for him, a diversification of his game, for another reason: The Sixers might just draft another big man this year.
This sounds silly. This is not silly. The two players projected to be the Nos. 1 and 2 selections in this year's draft are Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns, each of whom is 6-foot-11 (given an inch or two either way) and somewhere between 250 and 270 pounds and has a polished post game.
Suppose the Sixers come out of the lottery with one of the two top picks. (At 18-57, they have the NBA's third-worst record.) Suppose general manager Sam Hinkie and his scouting staff determine that Okafor and Towns are indeed the best available players on the board. With Embiid and Noel already on the roster, with the Sixers' in particular need (among their many particular needs) of a point guard and perimeter shooting, should Hinkie really consider selecting Okafor or Towns?
Of course he should.
Lest anyone get too caught up in Noel's development, the spike in his production, and the Sixers' potential improvement once Embiid takes the floor, the Sixers are still a pretty bad basketball team. They need players, lots of them, and the notion that they're already at the stage where Hinkie can draft strictly based on positional need is far-fetched. They're not at the point yet where Hinkie should be doing anything other than draft the best available player with his highest draft pick.
Remember: Hinkie has built himself a pretty thick cushion for this draft. The Sixers are likely to have two first-round picks (theirs and Miami's, which is protected through No. 10), and they could have as many as four if the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Lakers keep winning and push themselves out of the protected ranges for the picks that Hinkie acquired from them. (L.A's victory Monday, then, was a productive loss for the Sixers. The Lakers are 20-53, the fourth-worst team in the league. The pick they traded to the Sixers is top-five protected.)
With as many as four possible first-round picks among the top 19, Hinkie could put together an enticing trade package. He could do so even with two first-rounders. But what he can't do is assume that two of the Sixers' five starting spots are already filled into perpetuity by Noel, a player with a still-limited offensive repertoire, and Embiid, who hasn't suited up for a game yet.
No, you don't close a door on either Okafor or Towns. You keep all options open - even splitting playing time among Noel, Embiid, and another post player. You keep collecting assets. For Monday was just one more example of how far this Lazarus project has yet to go.
Down the stretch, coach Brett Brown kept running clear-outs for Noel, and Noel hit two foul shots to put the Sixers ahead with 17.6 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, then tied the game with that late shot in OT. He's their new power forward, and their new go-to guy in a game's closing moments.
Everything is still new here, and it will be again in the fall, when Noel and Embiid and whoever that draft pick turns out to be take off their warm-ups for the first time.