JOEL EMBIID needs to work on protecting the basketball a bit better when he is fed down in the lane and double-teams swarm to him like seagulls to food on the boardwalk.

Jahlil Okafor is still very much a project at the defensive end of the floor, too many times stuck in the moment of a play and not anticipating what is coming. He needs to work on anticipation to cut back on the reaction.

Nerlens Noel, whenever he sees meaningful minutes on the floor again, has to understand that he will not be the focal point of this team. Not while Embiid is here. Heck, Noel might never be the focal point of any team. He needs to know that, accept it and move forward being the best player he can be in whatever role is designated to him.

Different players have to deal with different limitations. While these three are prime examples, they do have an area in common that needs to keep developing, and that's their maturity.

Embiid is only 22 years old, a few months older than Noel. Okafor just turned legal drinking age last week. Though still young, they have the weight of the Philadelphia sports world on their shoulders, like it or not. So, continuing to raise their level of maturity is just as important as improving their offensive and defensive skills.

Coach Brett Brown knows what it is to have a mature leader, as he was surrounded by them in San Antonio with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But those players didn't become front men because of their Hall of Fame-level play. Brown often talks of Duncan's work ethic. The power forward would hound Brown to get players for five-on-five games in August, just a month or so after the Spurs' season had ended. Stories easily roll off Brown's tongue when talking about the competitive nature of Parker and Ginobili, who built stellar careers after being taken with the 28th and 57th picks, respectively, in their drafts.

While there has been a firestorm of late surrounding how the Sixers will handle Noel and how the three might possibly be able to work together, there have been some really good signs of a maturing process - after all, everything is a process around Sixerville.

Following the Sixers' 100-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, Embiid was asked about the defensive play of the team. "I thought we had a bad defensive game," he said. "I'm the type of guy, if I play defense, I want everyone around me to do the same."

That's a great step forward for someone who will be looked upon as the leader of not only the Sixers, but of this city's sports landscape for years to come. While most will see it as a veiled push to Okafor, I saw it as Embiid soliciting all his teammates to pick it up in that area of the floor.

Only two nights later, there was Brooklyn center Brook Lopez going off for 19 points in the first half in powering the lowly Nets to a three-point lead at the break. Whether Embiid revisted his defensive remarks from two nights earlier, no one has said. But somehow, somewhere a point was made.

Though Okafor missed all of his 10 shots on the night, his second-half effort at the defensive end helped limit Lopez to only three points in the final 24 minutes and aid the Sixers in getting their seventh win of the season.

It was enlightening. Finishing a game with a strong defensive presence and 11 rebounds while not making a shot was something that, quite simply, would not have happened a year ago for Okafor. Had his offensive game been going south, everything else was sure to follow. The look on his face in the locker room after the game when he and I went over the box score together said it all. He laughed off the shooting doughnut and pridefully pointed out the second-half numbers of Lopez and his rebounding total.

"The only goal that we have is that we want to be 15th at the end of the year, in the middle of the pack and then move that forward in the NBA defense," Brown said. "It's the only thing since Stockton (training camp) that we've talked about. So when you talk about the accountability defensively of having people be able to coach each other and not just dust off baskets and go down to the other end. When there's some level of pain and they truly feel it and they can coach each other and talk to each other on the floor, that's when you really feel like that you're growing. I see signs that they do that more than they ever have."

Noel hasn't exactly been the epitome of maturity.

He decided to work out on his own last summer, had disparaging remarks about the organization more than a couple of times since training camp and decided to have surgery and stay away from the team during his recovery. Times are tough for him now as he's been relegated to the bench for the foreseeable future. Working on his game will come in practice and individual workouts with the coaches. When they think he is in basketball shape and the matchups warrant his being on the floor during a game, that will happen.

But maturing can happen at any time. Maybe the whirlwind that surrounded Noel this week will take him to unrecoverable depths as far as being with this organization is concerned. Maybe, however, it will be the best lesson he'll learn when it comes to his profession.

@BobCooney76

Blog: philly.com/Sixersblog