The Philadelphia 76ers are 15-47, which currently stands as the second-worst record in the NBA. The team has lost 16 straight contests heading into Monday night’s trip to Madison Square Garden, and there is a very real chance that this group could go the rest of 2013-14 without winning another game. This would give the team a 36-game losing streak to end the season, nearly half of an NBA campaign, adding rightful fuel for those that have been blasting the Sixers for tanking the season since last June’s NBA draft.
It was in that draft that the team’s new front office made what was seen by many to be a franchise-saving move. The squad traded Jrue Holiday – a fringe All-Star and nice player, to be sure, but already on his second contract – for the rights to Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, and a draft pick from New Orleans that is protected in the top five of the loaded 2014 NBA draft. Noel was looked upon to have the highest upside of any player in the 2013 draft, a sure top overall pick before tearing his ACL late in Kentucky’s season, and the Pelicans-to-be seemed far from a certain playoff team in 2013-14.
Due to injuries, NOLA has played worse than expected in 2013-14, going from a potential playoff contender to a squad currently on pace to give up the 11th pick in June’s draft. The Sixers doubled down on Noel’s recovery time, as well, stating during training camp that it was uncertain if the big man would play at all in 2013-14 – a move that both allowed the team to work on Noel’s rather raw overall game, while still punting the season.
Nerlens, it appears, has other plans. On Sunday, he tweeted this out:
4-4-14— Nerlens Noel (@NerlensNoel3) March 9, 2014
That’s not his birthday, as Nerlens doesn’t turn 20 (!) until April 10. It’s also not the one-year anniversary of his ACL tear, as that happened on 2-13-14. It’s also, as far as we can tell, not some Illuminati call to arms or the date his album drops.
The Philadelphia 76ers do play against the Boston Celtics on 4-4-14, though, a division rival that is also in the throes of a rebuilding season that some of the more insufferable “will someone think of the children?!?” tanking hand-wringers have complained about. The 76ers deny that there is a set date for Noel’s return, but Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer begs to differ:
Nerlens Noel would like to make his 76ers debut in his hometown of Boston on April 4, according to sources. They confirmed that’s why the rookie center tweeted “4-4-14” in reference to April 4, 2014 on Sunday afternoon.
The sources said this is just a wish that he had not disclosed to the Sixers as of Sunday afternoon.
On Monday, in the lead up to Philly’s contest against the Knicks, indefatigable 76ers coach Brett Brown was asked about Noel’s sly statement:
"I don't know that much about the tweet we are talking about,” Brown said after Monday’s shootaround at MSG. “And I’m not sure anyone has been really able to define it.”
The coach was asked if he liked Noel’s eagerness to play despite this being a dismal season for the Sixers.
“Just in general, he’s all in regards to the practices and the weights,” Brown said. “He’s just come with boundless energy. And I really don’t want to go on record too much in regards to the tweet, because I really don’t know enough about it. I haven’t spoken to him about it. That’s that.”
Prior to the draft, Noel originally pegged a Christmas return from his injury, handing himself a safe ten and a half month window for recovery that falls right in line with the “eight-to-12 month” diagnosis most give ACL tears. April’s return would come just before the 14 month mark, though, and it truly does seem like the best thing for all sides.
For one, Nerlens Noel is not going to stop the Philadelphia 76ers from losing games. He’s a fantastic prospect, one who still very well could turn out to be the top player out of that limited 2013 draft (we love you, Giannis Antetokounmpo, but centers are centers), but we’re talking about a terribly raw player on both ends that hasn’t played for over a year. Toss in the ACL uneasiness, and you’re going to have a nervous, at times hesitant player that will still have a lot to learn.
This is why the 76ers made a point to engage in “a total rebuild” of Noel’s offensive game. The Kentucky Wildcats, forced to win now and with NCAA-limited practice time last year, were afforded no such luxury. The Sixers, as they’ve been doing since they dealt an All-Star for a project with an ACL tear and a potential future lottery pick, have been taking the long term approach with things. Intelligently.
That intelligence should lead to Noel coming off the pine on April 4, with just seven games left in Philly’s season. Noel needs to get in the reps, and get in some minutes, so that his work this autumn won’t be looked at as some sort of novelty. For Noel to make his NBA debut some 20 and a half months after tearing his ACL, as would be the case if he missed all of this season, would probably be a disservice to his potential growth. He needs to know that he can trust his repaired leg, so that he can set sights on developing his game in 2014-15, without worrying about his wheels.
On a personal tip, it’s not as if Nerlens was winning the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year anyway, because his game just isn’t suited for that just yet. Even if this year’s draft class was as limited as the 2013 crop, that wasn’t happening. He may someday be an All-Star and the literal centerpiece on a great 76ers team, but Noel isn’t losing any individual hardware by playing seven games in 2013-14.
What he would be gaining is the trust of his legs, knowledge about the pro game on a level that practice just can’t simulate, and a much needed return to action after over a year spent watching from afar. NBA benches may be just a few feet away from the sideline, but an inactive player in street clothes might as well be miles away from live action.
Let the guy play, Philly. It’ll give your fans – most of whom are just fine with the rebuilding approach, and don’t want those anti-tanking writers working on their behalf – something to look forward to as the season wraps up, and it could benefit your future center in ways that would go well behind firing up another 500 15-footers after practice.
Even if it’s a game pitched between two of the league’s worst teams, because of Nerlens Noel’s potential and storyline, we’re all looking forward to 4-4-14. Make it happen, 76ers.
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