Nearly 14 months ago, then-Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel tore his left ACL. His draft stock surprisingly slipped, as Noel dropped to sixth in the NBA draft, eventually taken by the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers. Those Sixers surprised the league by positing that Noel could sit out the entire 2013-14 campaign while recovering from that tear, slowly rebuilding not only his leg strength but his overall offensive game after a lone raw season with the Wildcats.
Last month, Noel cryptically tweeted “4-4-14,” which many took as some sort of sign that he would make his NBA debut against his hometown(ish) Boston Celtics, though neither Noel nor the Sixers confirmed as much. On Monday, as has become custom, the 76ers allowed the media to witness another post-practice workout for Noel with coach Brett Brown, with Noel ultimately going up against teammates Brandon Davies and Jarvis Varnado when Brown left to speak with reporters.
The Delaware County Daily Times’ Christopher Vito snapped this picture of Noel in action:
Following the workout, Brett Brown answered the same old questions with the same old response, pointing out that he couldn’t give a date for Noel’s return, whether that came this season or next, before falling back on the things he could accurately comment on. Namely, Noel’s still stellar potential. From Vito’s report at the Daily Times:
"The first thing I've fallen in love with is he is beyond competitive. There's a dog in him," Brown said of Noel. "There's a toughness in him that I misjudged, because you look at him and he's got those big eyes at 19 years old, and there's a naiveté that, no doubt, exists in him as it should. He doesn't talk a lot. He listens a lot. He's a fantastic listener. As you go through all of those months shooting one-handed with him, and then all of a sudden you see him come out here, he is a fierce competitor.
"For me, it's the No. 1 quality that makes somebody special. Then you get into the athleticism where he's got a bounce. He can jump twice. People that can miss a blocked shot, hit the floor and go back up are special - and he can do it with both his right hand and his left hand. I think his growth of his foul shot will carry into his real shot. I'm proud of the time we've spent with him. I see a far-more mature type of player, having gone through all the film sessions and weight room sessions and on a team bus and plane. He's been a part of the team. He just hasn't played. This year has been invaluable for him."
We don’t doubt that this unique approach to Noel’s recovery has been invaluable. We’re also still of the opinion, though, that this season could get in the way of what could be a very good 2014-15 for a player that still has yet to turn 20 years of age.
Letting Noel sit and completely restructuring his offensive game is absolutely the right way to go. Kentucky has proven itself as an NBA-styled workshop scenario, but no amount of NCAA-level practice and play can prepare players for the rigors of competition of the NBA – whether you’re a raw one-and-done type like Nerlens, or a seemingly ready-made four-year player like 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. When you factor in the ACL tear and the fact that most of Noel’s 10.5 points per game at Kentucky came on putbacks and lobs, it completely makes sense that the Sixers would want to start from scratch, instead of throwing him to the wolves while building on lacking fundamentals.
The guy needs to play, though. He has to get something in.
Brown talked up letting Noel play in the 2014 NBA Summer Leagues, which is fine, but Nerlens needs to have the stank of actual NBA experience on him before he dives into yet another summer off. We’re in a weird point with this league, with prominent players like Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Derrick Rose about to hit 2014-15 after essentially taking one, one and a half, or two seasons off, and in their brief stretches of active play they have shown significant rust.
Noel’s situation is different, in ways both good and bad, because of his youth and inexperience. No amount of after-practice jump hook contests against Jarvis Varnado and Brandon Davies will prepare Nerlens for life as a technical rookie in 2014-15, though. He has to have some idea of what the NBA is like heading into those Summer Leagues, and even if the competition is against weak late-season competition, it’s still going to help. Unless there is something the 76ers aren’t telling us about his ACL rehabilitation.
It’s not going to stop the Sixers from losing games as they try to tank away, and it’s not going to cost him a 2014-15 Rookie of the Year award that he was never going to win. Philadelphia should already back into that honor next month, when Michael Carter-Williams brings home the hardware in the Worst Rookie Race Ever.
Token late season appearances truly would help. Unless there’s some real threat to his knee, some two months after the expiration of the “eight to twelve months”-rehabilitation status that ACL tears usually receive, Nerlens Noel needs to make his NBA debut this month. In this league, actual game experience is worth its figurative weight in gold.
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