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The Philadelphia 76ers are still debating about when or if they’ll play the improving Nerlens Noel this season

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Nerlens Noel works with coach Brett Brown and Greg Foster (Getty Images)

The Philadelphia 76ers drafted former Kentucky center Nerlens Noel last year with the understanding that his 2013-14 rookie season would not matter, and that in fact his rookie season may not even take place in 2013-14. Noel, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during the second week of February last year, was traded for by a rebuilding 76ers squad that was bent on punting the entire year in order to develop a solid core, and acquire draft assets for the loaded 2014 NBA draft.

Initially, it was thought that Noel would see at least some token action from the Sixers this year, but before the season even started Philly coach Brett Brown tossed some cold water on that idea, telling the press that Noel may not play this season because not only did the team want to be mindful of his ACL rehabilitation, they wanted to “start a bit from ground zero” with his still-developing and very raw overall game.

On Wednesday, ESPN.com reported that the Sixers and Noel’s surgeon announced that he had been cleared to resume basketball-related activities. Noel’s surgeon, the famed Dr. James Andrews, also pointed out that Noel was “doing excellent,” with one source suggesting that Dr. Andrews (who met with the 19-year old last week) thought Nerlens was fit to return to practice. Prior to this, Noel’s only time spent with an actual basketball included him working in shooting drills with head coach Brown and player development coach Greg Foster, a former solid-shooting big man for the Jazz and Lakers.

A day later, sources around the Sixers are attempting to pump the brakes a little, while speaking off record. From Keith Pompey at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Now, he just needs to be cleared by the Sixers before he can play in a game.

That's where things get dicey.

Until Tuesday, Noel's workouts have consisted mostly of taking one-handed set shots under the supervision of coach Brett Brown and/or player development coach Greg Foster.

The source close to the situation said he believes that Andrews wants credit for putting Noel in position to return to the court, regardless of whether he is ready to return.

The Sixers say they don't know when Noel will return.

Dr. James Andrews has been around the sporting scene for decades, and has drawn widespread praise from both players and organizations from various leagues. This is the first I’ve heard about him looking to take undue credit for a player’s recovery.

The typical recovery time for an ACL tear is listed as “10 to 12 months,” and Nerlens is pushing up against that timeframe. In fact, by this time in his own ACL recovery, the notoriously (and rightfully) hesitant Derrick Rose was already practicing with his team, with the Chicago Bulls selling him out by releasing a press statement touting up his ability to return to game action in an attempt to influence a late season return to game action.

The 76ers aren’t in the same place, for various reasons. For one, at the comparable recovery times, Derrick Rose was less than two years removed from winning an MVP award, and his return would be to a Chicago Bulls team already locked into a playoff run, looking to once again vault into the league’s elite.

Philadelphia, currently, has the fifth-worst record in the NBA. They are openly trying out minor league contributors in their continued season-long training camp, and while at times they remain one of the more entertaining teams to watch in the league, trade chatter abounds that the squad is attempting to deal the contracts of Thaddeus Young and leading scorer Evan Turner.

Young is having a fantastic year, but he’s set to make over $19.3 million over the next two seasons, working in his prime for a big salary on a younger rebuilding team. Turner might be averaging 19 points per game, but the Philadelphia front office is probably not as enthused about the amount of two-point attempts it takes to get to 19 points, and his seeming disinterest in other parts of the game. If either player can fetch even a lower-rung first rounder, you’d think that newish Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie would pounce away.

Picks are part of the process, and Hinkie wants them. If the team continues its losing ways (it has gone 8-21 after a 5-4 start), the Sixers will continue to improve their draft lottery odds, as they’re currently slated to select fifth overall if everything goes according to statistical plan. Hinkie would love to field that pick, the one they’ll likely get from a snakebitten New Orleans Pelicans squad, and any further picks alongside Nerlens Noel as an ostensible rookie to start 2014-15. It would be a young, talented team with a sound salary cap setup in place.

This is why the team may choose to sit Noel the entire year. And though I don’t mind in the slightest the Sixers punting the season – they’re going about this the right way – I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea of Nerlens missing out on all of 2013-14 for anything other than health reasons.

It’s true that the young man won’t turn 20 until April, and that you want to be especially careful with something as potentially significant as an ACL tear. And it’s also true that, for Philadelphia especially, every loss counts.

Nerlens Noel isn’t changing any NBA basketball games any time soon, though. Even before his ACL tear, when he was setting NCAA records with his shot blocking exploits, it was understood that the likely future top overall pick was a raw project in a very weak draft. Toss in the injury, the rust, and the rebuilt game, and you have a young talent who really isn’t going to be shifting the needle for the 76ers were he to come back for, say, three weeks’ worth of games to end 2013-14.

A modest return like that would take the pressure off of a hyped-up return next fall, some 19 months after tearing the ACL. We saw how out of rhythm Derrick Rose was to start 2013-14 after all his time off, and that was an All-Star nearing his prime. Noel is still a project. And if the Sixers are holding off on their big man in hopes that he could make a Rookie of the Year push with a full 2014-15 season, that’s silly on two levels. For one, awards don’t mean anything. Secondly, Nerlens Noel is not beating out anyone from that 2014 NBA draft class for Rookie of the Year.

If he’s ready, the 76ers should let him make a late season debut. This is a raw player that needs to develop NBA-level confidence, and he needs an introduction to NBA-level speed. As soon as possible.

If there’s a health risk, and he truly does need to sit out the season, then let him sit. That should be the only reason Nerlens Noel should miss all of 2013-14. The only reason.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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