For the second straight season, Philadelphia 76ers fans find themselves with an injured, sidelined center filled with massive expectations.
For a long while, Nerlens Noel seemed like a lock to be the first selection in the draft. He was a top prospect coming out of high school. After a few games at Kentucky, his dominance in the paint was on full display, averaging 9.5 RPG, 4.4 BPG and 2.1 SPG – ludicrous numbers on the defensive side of the ball. The sky was the limit for Noel. Then he tore his ACL and nothing but questions bubbled to the surface.
After the Andrew Bynum debacle trade, the fact that Noel has an injury that should keep him sidelined for the majority of his rookie season should make a few Sixers fans queasy. However, if Noel recovers from his ACL tear, adds some bulk to his frame and reaches something close to his projected potential, fans in Philadelphia will be more than happy with their future starting center.
Elite rim protectors like Noel do not come along very often. If you have the opportunity to grab one, you take him and don’t look back. Noel has the potential to become an elite defender in the NBA. In addition to his soaring size, standing just under 7-feet tall with a wingspan upwards of 7-foot-3, Noel has displayed excellent footwork, speed and athleticism, especially for a man of his stature.
His size and speed allow him to cover a vast portion of the court effectively. When Noel is on the floor, every opposing guard will think twice about penetrating the lane because he can move from side to side swiftly with the ability to stretch or rise up and swat away shot and pass attempts.
Simply put, he doesn’t have to travel far to defend any angle. The only knock to this side of his game is his slender frame. At just over 200 pounds, some wonder whether Noel’s body will be able to withstand the overbearing physicality of the NBA game. Although he is a giant, he is very much a finesse player, or so it seems.
On the offensive side of the ball, Noel has a lot to work on. While his speed, size and athleticism allow him to sky over defenders for alley-oops and put back jams, he has neither a developed post game nor a threatening jump shot to draw defenders out of the lane.
At Kentucky, Noel shot just over 52 percent from the free throw line. If he’s not getting offensive rebounds or easy slams on fast breaks and when the opposing help side defense breaks down, he is probably not going to score very many points. Furthermore, it will be easy to hack Noel and send him to the line to negate any easy layups.
However, Noel has apparently shown an incredible work ethic while rehabbing his ACL injury. This is good news for Philadelphia fans. If Noel truly has a strong work ethic, he should be able to develop the flaws in his game, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
If Noel can structure himself into at least a serviceable offensive option capable of being an occasional threat in the post, he could become an elite player in this league. Dwight Howard was once met with the same criticisms in his offensive game, and he eventually worked himself into a respectable post presence on that side of the ball.
Noel has a lot of weight to pack on, but he already possesses the athleticism and instincts to become a top-flight defender. If he can develop his offensive skills to at least mediocre levels, the sky is the limit for Noel, and his teammates will become better simply by being on the floor at the same time as him. With his size and speed, he should be able to clean up the messes left by poor perimeter defense as long as he remains healthy.
Show some patience, Philadelphia fans. He is probably going to miss the majority of this season so once he finally sees the floor (probably in limited minutes), he will be playing catch up. Let Noel develop at a reasonable pace, but know that you could possibly have a future defensive mastermind in your midst.