It is virtually assumed that the Philadelphia 76ers are going to be the worst team in the NBA this season. Nevertheless, the roster does provide several reasons for optimism beyond their potential 2014 draft pick. In particular, rookie big man Nerlens Noel figures as a very promising player moving forward, a one-time likely top overall pick who slipped in the draft due to concerns over the ACL he tore in February as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats.
The question, of course, is when Noel will actually return to the court. Before the draft, he claimed that he hoped to play his first NBA game before Christmas. However, with the regular season a little more than a week away and Noel's rehabilitation still trudging along, Sixers head coach Brett Brown suggests we should get used to seeing Noel in a suit. From Sam Amico for FoxSportsOhio.com:
Brown, in his first season as Sixers coach, said Noel is likely to miss his entire first NBA season as the result of a torn ACL suffered while Noel was a freshman at the University of Kentucky.
Brown dropped the news prior to the Sixers’ preseason game Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the campus of Ohio State University.
“We don’t want to waste this year,” Brown said of the Sixers’ strategy with Noel. “I think, from all perspectives, it’s an opportunity to break down his shot, really work on his free throws, and start a bit from ground zero. He’s bought in and been great.” [...]
Now, Brown said, Noel is likely to be held out for the sake of learning in the film room and from the bench.
“He needs to be nurtured this year.” Brown said. “I think we’ve grabbed the thing and put him on a road map that’s good for him, and good for the program.”
Sixers fans likely won't be pleased with this scenario, if only because they recently experienced the disappointment of since-departed center Andrew Bynum missing the entire 2012-13 season while rehabilitating his own knee problems. While these players are at very different points in their careers and carry different expectations, it can be a drag to watch a team's most promising big man sit out the entire season two years in a row.
The Sixers' plan is also more than a little surprising. Brown doesn't mention Noel's health as a primary reason for the potential decision to hold him out of games for the entire season. Any rookie needs to be nurtured and developed, but it's commonly assumed that such things take place as he finds his way in actual NBA games. It's one thing to hold out Noel because there's a fear he'll reaggravate his knee injury and slow his long-term development — it's another not to let him play because it's apparently the best path towards improvement. It all seems a little counterintuitive.
This timeline is sure to solicit accusations of tanking, particularly given that the Sixers have not exactly taken great strides to improve their roster this offseason. However, if that is the plan (and it should noted that we don't know if it is), then the potential benefit of these losses could be negligible. Lottery odds are contingent on a team's place in the standings, not their sheer number of losses. As noted above, the Sixers are probably going to be the worst team in the NBA regardless of how many games Noel plays. What can they gain from holding him out?
Then again, perhaps we're overanalyzing the situation. As Blake Griffin and others have proven, sitting out a full season as an NBA rookie does not have to hinder a player's development to a significant degree. Given the sorry state of the Sixers' roster, not saddling Noel with too many expectations and responsibilities could even be a good thing. As long as he is on board with this plan and understands how to put this season to good use, he could still have a fruitful career. And, heck, when we see Noel in a Sixers game for the first time, he could be making his debut alongside another lottery pick with hopes of becoming a star.
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