Bye Jrue, Hello Future


Jun 27, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA; NBA commissioner David Stern addresses the crowd before the 2013 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I would venture to say I was not alone when I saw the news of Sam Hinkie’s first major splash as the Sixers new general manager.

April 17, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Jrue Holiday (11) brings the ball up court against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

All that was running through my mind was that we just traded the only player on our roster that belonged in the starting five of a championship team. Holiday, who the team had signed to a 4-yr/$41 million extension prior to this past season represented the only promising piece of a meddling Sixers squad that had little to look to the future for.

Jun 27, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Nerlens Noel is interviewed at the Westin Hotel prior to the NBA Draft. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After the rage subsided once it was confirmed that the Sixers had NOT traded their 1st round pick in the 2014 draft, widely considered to be as talent-rich a draft in the last decade, focus shifted from losing Holiday to the newest member of the team Nerlens Noel. At the start of the 2012-2013 college basketball campaign, all signs pointed to Noel being the 2nd straight Kentucky big man to go 1st overall in the draft, following in the steps of fellow shot-blocking extraordinaire Anthony Davis (ironically enough of the Pelicans). While his offensive game left something to be desired in Kentucky’s rather disappointing title-defending season, it was easy to see that Noel had the sort of shot-blocking ability that would translate into a dominating defensive presence at the next level. Noel’s position at the top of the 2013 Draft had little to do with how his Wildcat team performed in the SEC, as Noel was thought to be more of a project and, with the draft class being weaker than most years, a team would not have an issue taking Noel at the top projecting him forward a few years. All Noel had to do was stay healthy and he would be the first to shake Commissioner David Stern’s hand at the podium.

February 12, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) is checked on by head coach John Calipari after suffering an knee injury against the Florida Gators during the second half at the Stephen C. O

Well that’s why they play the games in sports. In a February 12 loss to then 7th ranked Florida, a game Noel had already tallied multiple blocks in, the springy center went up to stop a Gator transition opportunity and came down awkwardly near the baseline, with his left knee buckling under him and the freshman phenom crumbled to the ground.

Noel did not play any more for the Wildcats and, unsurprisingly, announced his intentions to enter the draft. While there was nothing certain as far as going 1st overall, several experts still saw the risk / reward factor with him as reason enough to take a chance on him in the watered-down draft. With how rare a commodity premiere shot-blockers are in the draft, the team at the top, in this instance the lottery-winning Cleveland Cavaliers, would be willing to be patient with the young man’s recovery and reap the rewards down the road when Noel returned to full health. Meanwhile, the former Wildcat had to do his best to convince teams around the league that he was rehabbing hard and doing his best to tack on weight to his NBA combine weight of 206 pounds. By the beginning of the week, it was hard to come across a mock draft that did not have Noel slated as one of the top three picks.

As the draft started, and the Cavaliers shocked the experts with their selection of UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, the cringe-worthy observance of Noel’s disappointment commenced. Pick after pick passed and the ESPN camera’s captured the agony of the teenager as he realized that the question marks surrounding his injuries proved to be too risky to use a top-5 pick on.

Finally, at pick number six, the newly minted New Orleans Pelicans, with Noel’s predecessor at Kentucky Anthony Davis fresh off a stellar rookie campaign, pulled the trigger on Noel.

While the pick was confusing on the surface, it was more enjoyable to see the uninhibited joy on the young man’s face when he realized that, although not when he expected, his dream of joining an NBA roster had come to fruition. He would be joining an up-and-coming squad with a budding talent pool looking to contend in the Western Conference. What Noel did not realize was that, in a short while, he would get his wish of being a team’s dream pick and a player who would have the hopes of an organization resting on his development as a player.

With one trade, the Sixers went from a team that, with a few shrewd moves and a little bit of luck, could return to the playoffs as a lower seed and foster the development of their one young star, to a franchise scorching the earth of management’s past and blazing a new trail toward fielding a championship team. By moving Holiday and one of their two 2nd round picks for Noel, the Sixers answered multiple questions about their frontcourt, as well as their position on the enigmatic Andrew Bynum (hint: they aren’t going to sign him)

The Sixers draft-day blockbuster epitomized the methodical approach that Hinkie intends on employing to bring the Sixers from the depths of NBA mediocrity. All offseason, the executive that the team brought in because of his success with the NBA draft preached patience and reiterated that, while bringing in a new head coach and making decisions on player personnel, the draft was going to be how this new Sixers regime was going to build a contender.

Projecting forward, Noel brings multiple elements that Philadelphia has been lacking since, honestly, the early 2000s. Noel is an uber-athletic, springy presence with a competitive edge, and a bit of a nasty streak. While the question marks surrounding his offensive game are warranted, his 10.5 ppg, and .590 FG percentage on a solid-at-best Kentucky team, one where Noel was the focal point of the opponent game in and game out, shows some promise moving forward. Noel works well within the flow of a motion offense. Prior to his injury, he demonstrated his ability to pass and cut, set solid screens, and roll hard and finish with authority when his teammates set him up. He rarely showed an ability to hit a jump shot and, when faced with formidable opposition, such as fellow lottery pick Alex Len in the team’s opener vs. Maryland, Noel would disappear at times in the offense and display frustration.

Dec 15, 2012; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) blocks a shot in the game against the Lipscomb Bisons in the first half at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the day, the lure of Noel is all on the defensive end. With the disappearance of the mid-range game in the NBA and the emergence of slashers and ‘playing above the rim’, the value of a rim protector who can alter a team’s offensive strategy is beyond valuable. At 4.4 blocks per game, Noel led the entire NCAA, regardless of class, in the category. In addition, he pulled down an impressive 9.5 rebounds per game and lived up to a great deal of the expectations heaped on him being a top-5 high school player going to Kentucky.

One could argue that Noel will be the most heavily-scrutinized Sixers draft pick since Allen Iverson in 1996, and to follow his road to recovery and journey towards the starting lineup should be a spectacle.

After all of the Noel buzz, one major question remained with the team following their jettison of Jrue Holiday, who was going to play point guard?

While it was true that Jrue did have a tendency to turn the ball over, at an alarming rate sometimes, the Sixers dearth of talent in their starting roster forced the All-Star to push the tempo and try to force things to happen, rather than allowing the offense to dictate itself. Evan Turner loves to handle the ball but has no business running the team’s offense. Holiday was the sole ball-handler on the team and everything appeared as if the organization planned on building around that concept. Without Holiday running the point, there would be no business even fielding a team next season, as they struggled enough WITH an All-Star point guard.

A major bonus of the trade with New Orleans was the team’s retention of the 11th overall pick. While Trey Burke had been selected a few picks earlier, there were still some names the team could consider at 11, or even trade back a few slots and take a chance on Miami’s Shane Larkin. The team opted for the stand-pat route and penciled in Syracuse floor-general Michael Carter-Williams as their 2nd lottery pick of the evening. The long, lanky, Sophomore of the Orange was the catalyst for their impressive squad that reached the Final Four, bowing out to eventual runner-up Michigan.

Apr 6, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Syracuse Orange guard Michael Carter-Williams (1) reacts in the first half of the semifinals during the 2013 NCAA mens Final Four at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

While I did not scout Carter-Williams extensively entering the draft, still under the notion that the team would have point guard as their one sure-fire starter, a high-profile program like Syracuse forces you to pay attention when a player stands out. Carter-Williams was third in the nation in assists, tallying an impressive 7.7 per game. While it is difficult to imagine Carter-Williams being the scoring threat that Jrue was, he did show flashes in the Orange’s tournament run, the highlight being a 24-point outburst against top-seeded Indiana. The most tantalizing aspect of Carter-Williams as a prospect is his frame. At an impressive 6’6″, Carter-Williams took full advantage of his height, often looking over defenses and demonstrating an innate court vision both in the half-court as well as transition. He was also able to pull down almost five rebounds a game despite weighing in at only 185 pounds. A player that comes to mind, and unfortunately his promising career was dashed by injuries, was former prep product Shaun Livingston. Hopefully, Carter-Williams can show the sort of pass-first, score when necessary mentality that will help whatever young pieces Hinkie continues to surround him with, as the young man from Massachusetts steps into the large shoes left by the departed Holiday.

The wild card in this trade was the 2014 1st round pick. When I first saw the deal and noticed that, in addition to Holiday, the Sixers were sending their pick in next year’s talent-laden draft for Noel, it was hard not to question the sanity of Sam Hinkie. However, the initial reporting of the deal proved to be a misprint and, when everything shook out, the 2014 1st round, lightly protected pick, would be coming back to Philadelphia along with Noel. For anyone who follows college basketball recruiting and all the buzz leading into next year’s NCAA season, they know just how essential it is to stockpile picks in the 2014 draft. The laundry list of potential freshmen stars lining the rosters of blue-blood programs such as: Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina, has scouts and general managers alike already salivating, and jockeying for position to get a shot at some of the best prospects to come along in nearly a decade. The prize of the draft is incoming Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, whose father Mitchell Wiggins actually played for the Sixers back in the day, has been touted as the most impressive NBA prospect since LeBron James. His uncanny athleticism combined with a scorers edge and fiery competitiveness should be on full display in Lawrence next season, as head coach Bill Self already is projecting the young man as a future NBA star. Wiggins is not the only franchise-caliber player coming down the pipeline looking ahead toward next year. Kentucky alone, with their trio of Julius Randle, and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, appears to have three lottery picks in their starting lineup. Duke’s Jabari Parker, who attended Derrick Rose’s alma mater Simeon high school, has drawn moderate comparisons to Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant and will be able to show off his array of skills for Mike Krzyzewksi next season. Arizona’s Aaron Gordon as well as Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart are just a few more of the names that are likely at the top of the board next year.

What makes the Sixers situation so intriguing is the possibility that they could possess multiple picks in this lottery. While Hinkie’s draft shows a commitment to patience and building the right way, it would take a blind person to think this Sixers team will contend next season. They struggled with Holiday last year, and with Noel possibly sidelined at the beginning of the season, I would not be surprised if the Sixers finish with the lowest win total in the NBA next season. As we have all seen recently though, it is very difficult to win a NBA title without the prototypical ‘superstar’. Even when bad teams do have a high draft pick, they have to be fortunate enough to hold the selection in a year where the talent pool is as high as people expect 2014 to be. While the Sixers have been on the losing end of the lottery in recent history, there is nothing wrong with putting oneself in a position to be in the mix for any of the potential franchise players at the top of the 2014 board. By acquiring the Pelicans’ 2014 selection as well, as long as it is not a pick from 1-3, the Sixers could potentially have the pieces to move up into the top of the lottery and add an elite talent to a roster that will be taking shape by then.

While it is never easy to say good-bye to a special talent like Jrue Holiday, it is even more difficult to watch a team with no chance at a title hold on to players while they lose value. Despite the shock of the trade, the more I look down the pipe and take a step back at what Hinkie is trying to build, the more I like it. We all had fun watching Holiday dunking on LeBron late last season, but that only briefly took the sour taste out of fans mouths as the team sputtered through an embarrassing campaign and watched James lift another Larry O’Brien Trophy. I, for one, am as excited as I can remember being in quite some time regarding the Sixers. Anyone who has followed Philadelphia sports to this point knows that complaining and make jump decisions only makes falling short that much more painful. I am not looking forward to watching this team lose potentially 65 games next season. I am excited to see the development of a few special young talents and possibly, this time next year, talking about the Sixers as the front-runners to land one of the most special players to enter the NBA in ten years. Sit back, relax, and, at least for now. TRUST IN HINKIE