Gauging expectations for Nerlens Noel’s 2014-15 season


With the NBA preseason in full swing, its time to properly assess the perceptions of all teams across the board. As laughable as it may sound, this also includes giving the Philadelphia 76ers a fair look as well. Contrary to popular belief, there are some bright spots to look forward to this season, most notably those surrounding the delayed rookie season of Nerlens Noel. Now that he is completely healthy from the injury he suffered as a freshmen at Kentucky in February of 2013, the Sixers big man can finally start his professional career.

It should be said that we here at Section 215 have high expectations for Noel as part of a young core that will presumably revolve around him, Michael Carter-Williams and 2014 first-round draft pick Joel Embiid in the future. Injuries have kept the three of them from actually starting this exciting new era of the Sixers properly, but Noel will have a chance to build off of what Carter-Williams got going last year.

Eventually we will see how Embiid works with Noel (we assume), but for now thee former wildcat is the lone gem in this front court. The rebuilding phase of Sam Hinkie’s grand project is still very much in its development stages, but the pieces are at least beginning to come together. MCW was able to stand out as he was crowned last season’s rookie of the year, and now Noel will have a chance to do the same.

Before we start clamoring for Noel as a rookie of the year candidate, we have to keep in mind the criteria for the award isn’t exactly set up to favor players like Noel. It favors players that score considerably well among their peers, or at least moderately well while doing a bunch of other things consistently.

Let us make one thing clear, Noel’s strength isn’t–and never will be–scoring. In fact, scoring is probably his biggest deficiency, and while he’ll be applauded for his efforts on the defensive end, at some point he’ll have to have an offensive presence. Not to slight him in anyway, but one thing this Sixers team has plenty of is high athleticism guys with defensive upside. Noel possesses a dominant skill set that allows him to stand out among the roster, but it can’t be his only above-average trait. Not in light of the fact that this Philadelphia team has a serious lack of shooters and consistent scoring threats in the mix. Under different circumstances, Noel could flourish as an elite rim protector that occasionally  contributed to the offense, but on a team that plans on making him a major focal point as they attempt to build a championship contender, that just won’t cut it.

As our own Tim Kelly wrote a few months back, this will be a pivotal year for Noel.

"Noel has to show that he has some sort of offensive game now, and can develop into the type of player that could average 10 to 12 points-per-game. If he can’t prove that, then the Sixers will have to weigh the fact that he can run the floor and is likely going to be a top-notch defender, with what they think Embiid is going to develop into, how they feel about Embiid’s long-term health, and what the prospects of Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander and Karl Towns look like."

Despite this technically being his rookie season, the Sixers will by all means be in the same lottery spot that they were this past Summer. The amount of big-men being touted as early draft prospects already has questions surrounding Noel and Embiid’s future together, and the fact that Embiid likely won’t have to show and prove anything this season puts more pressure on Noel.

Watching him in the first pre-season game against the Boston Celtics, two things were noted. The first being that Noel is going to struggle early against actual NBA competition. Shooting two for nine wasn’t my biggest concern (it’s far from ideal, though), but the lack of aggression in drawing fouls certainly raised an eyebrow. His summer league was impressive, but watching him try to adjust offensively against a front court as weak as the Celtics wasn’t a positive sign.

The other thing worth mentioning is that he’ll also need to improve on what he’s expected to be great at. Rebounding and providing defensive mayhem is his bread and butter right now, and that didn’t necessarily show during the game either. Granted it was his first real NBA level game, but it is still something to keep an eye on. I expect that to serve as an early ice breaker for him, and that he’ll be much more focused moving forward.

Fortunately, he seemed a bit more willing to fix just that in his pre-season home debut against the Charlotte Hornets. His 10 point performance with nine boards to boast made him look much more like the guy who very well might have been a number one pick if he didn’t get injured in college. Again, he seemed to shy away from contact in the paint which leads me to think he’s not quite past his ACL injury from a mental standpoint, or he’s just more comfortable playing outside. His biggest issue still appears to be coming up empty from the free throw line as a big man, which is never acceptable and will become a glaring issue when teams do start to take notice.

I think its fair to say that just looking at what he can do based on his potential, that he has a ceiling that could splinter in two distinct directions. Noel may very well develop into a Joakim Noah type, which is something the Sixers would greatly benefit from if they ever manage to round out the team. Noah provides an energy that results in consistent action especially when drawing fouls. High scoring games doesn’t come often from him, but he provides enough on that end as an elite passer while completely changing the tide as a defender. I’m not sure that anyone wouldn’t sign up for the idea of Noel turning out to be a similar player to Noah, who has now played in back-to-back All-Star games.

The other, and this is if Noel truly refines his game on the offensive side, is a ceiling of Serge Ibaka. His penchant for mid-range shooting shows that he is willing to make his presence known outside of the paint area. This certainly seems like a stretch now, but considering his shooting was one of the main things he worked on during his year long recovery we’ll have to see how this unfolds. Ibaka has made quite a lane for himself in mastering the mid-range shot to compliment his value defensively. At his age there is no reason to think that Noel couldn’t develop into that type player, especially with coach Brett Brown on hand.

Obviously there is a worst case scenario, but that’s irrelevant because at this point Noel is just a rookie. That means the expectations for him should be to progress, regardless of how fast or slow the approach may be. Right now he’s getting his feet wet, and over the course of 82 games an eight point, eight rebound per-game season would be an accomplishment for him. On average he should do fairly well, especially on a team where he’ll receive plenty of minutes to perform trial and error as needed. Perhaps things will change around January/February, but for now there is reason to be hopeful that Noel will iron out the deficiencies in his game.