Nerlens Noel, who was very nearly the first overall pick in the NBA draft when he entered the league in 2014, now finds himself the third-string center for a team in which big men are about as rare as coffee cups at Wawa. Noel isn't happy about this situation and his frustration, which he has expressed several times previously, was on display again Friday night when he played just eight minutes after returning from a minor ankle injury.
"I'm too good to be playing eight minutes right now - that's crazy," Noel said.
The organization's reaction has been interesting. It's obvious the 76ers have just about had their fill of Noel, but just as apparent that he isn't going to be allowed to talk his way out of town. General manager Bryan Colangelo held an impromptu news conference on Monday after a hectic weekend of friction between Noel and coach Brett Brown. Colangelo essentially said Noel's unhappiness is logical, but he'd be best served to shut up about it. That was about as warm and fuzzy as it got.
"I can't say that was the best course of action by him. In fact, I would say it was ill-advised," Colangelo said, alluding to Noel's initial training-camp suggestion that the team had messed up by not trading someone over the summer. "It was ill-advised not only for his own value, but probably for our ability to have him involved in a deal. . . . At this point, in order for us to fairly evaluate Nerlens and for Nerlens to be fairly evaluated [by other teams], he needs to show that he's healthy, and that he's professional and he's got a good attitude to everything that's going on and that may lead to ultimately something that would lead to a move."
Noel opted to spend his summer away from the team's workouts, and that was strike one. Then, after observing during training camp that having three centers was "silly," he had elective arthroscopic surgery on an inflamed membrane in his left knee. The decision was his, not the team's. Strike two. And, now, after rehabbing from the surgery, playing 10 minutes in one game, tweaking an ankle, sitting out two practices and another game before being limited to those eight crazy minutes, Noel is spouting off again.
That might not be strike three for the organization's eventual referendum on which big guy to trade, but Colangelo obviously felt it was time to calm things down. He said Noel's public comments had been dealt with internally between the player and the organization, and that Noel would be out of the rotation for the time being while Brown explores the combination of Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor on the court together.
Noel "is a young, talented prospect that we are trying to determine whether or not he is a fit for this roster and, further, given that he has been unavailable for any sort of evaluation throughout the summer, unavailable earlier in the season because of a surgical procedure and now made available for really the first time . . . it's like starting at ground zero with his ability to break in," Colangelo said. "Coach made it clear it's not going to happen immediately because for no other reason than because we're just opening up the view of what it looks like with Jahlil and Joel on the court together and has nothing to do whatsoever with him saying something two days ago and acting frustrated that he's being benched. This is not a benching. It's just a realization that we've got a lot of talent and not everybody can play."
Noel probably believes that he will be the odd man out eventually, and that seems likely, even if he hasn't done much to improve his trade value. It could come out differently, though, or he could have company going out the door. When Colangelo listed the players he views as "foundational pieces," he didn't extend the roll call past Embiid and injured rookie Ben Simmons. Okafor is still on tryout, too, and the same could be said for the rest of the roster. When Simmons does make it to the floor, for instance, the team's pace of play will increase significantly and a premium will be placed on keeping up. Noel is a gazelle compared to Okafor. Just an observation.
"We're dealing with a logjam of players based on some decision-making that was done prior to me being here," Colangelo said. "I'm not blaming that decision-making at all. I'm only recognizing it."
Yes, it always gets back to Sam. And, yes, part of the issue is former general manager Sam Hinkie's affection for adding value to the roster by shopping the dent-and-ding bin of injured elite talent. Well, it took a while, but the big boys are finally healthy at the same time. That confluence of availability turned out to be loud and messy over the weekend.
As with most things involving the Sixers, this will take time to sort out. The organization made it clear on Monday that the messy part was expected, but the loud part won't be tolerated. We'll see if Nerlens Noel got the message.
If you don't pipe down and act right, you have to stay.