Sixers' Noel is 6-11 & growing

THE SIXERS' season is not about earning the best draft position.

It is not about losing on purpose.

It is about developing; for now, developing one player.

It's about Nerlens Noel.

That has been clear since the team traded point guard Michael Carter-Williams; perhaps because the team traded Michael Carter-Williams. If it was not clear, it should be clear now, after the last two games.

Brett Brown asked Noel to win a game in Cleveland on Sunday. Noel gladly accepted the chance. He made a good move, took a great shot, and missed.

Three times last night, Brown gave the ball to Noel and asked him to win the game. Twice, Noel came through; first with two free throws that forced overtime, then with a lefthanded runner in overtime that retied it and made the Lakers win it in the last second.

Noel got the ball on the right block Sunday. He took it at the free-throw line, then at the corner, then rolling, last night.

"He wants the ball," Brown said. "I've got confidence he's going to step up and not be afraid of the moment. I've . . . put him in [situations] all over the place; post him, bring him to an elbow, bring him to the top. It's a reflection of his growth."

Noel is gratified at the chance.

"It's coach believing in me. I take a lot of pride in that," he said. "I should have been a little more efficient all around tonight."

Huh?

Is this Nerlens Noel we're talking about?

The skinny kid whose elbow used to point east when he shot north?

The gangly guy whose knobby elbows and flying knees used to make him a hazard when he ran down the court?

Brown has polished the stroke and straightened the gait, and Noel, who sat out last season rehabbing his knee, clearly is at least the second-best rookie in the NBA . . . and maybe the least replaceable.

The mouth-breathing bottom-feeders who have a flawed faith in manipulating draft position might despair that the Sixers haven't lost enough to ensure a top-three pick. The season has never been about losing. It's been about building. Random building, perhaps, but building.

Noel's progress marks the second milestone in the Sixers' scorched-earth reconstruction plan. In 2013, the team dealt All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for the rights to Noel and another draft pick. The Sixers also drafted Carter-Williams, last season's Rookie of the Year, whom they have since traded for another high draft pick.

MCW - a big, complete point guard - is the most replaceable, valuable entity in the NBA these days.

Athletic big men, with heart?

They are the rarest.

Noel's progress coincided with the addition last month of veteran point guard Ish Smith, and Noel took the chance to criticize Carter-Williams' occasional tendency to make Noel and others spectators: "He's the first true point guard I've ever really played with."

Of course, during Carter-Williams' stay, Noel was not nearly the aggressive, more polished player he is today . . . but then, had MCW stayed, perhaps Noel would not have blossomed.

Either way, Noel has taken gigantic strides; steps that leave the Sixers faithful fantasizing about what he might do in tandem with natural center Joel Embiid.

Like Noel, Embiid, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, is spending his first season in the NBA recovering from injury. The Sixers can only hope Embiid applies himself as fully and progresses as fast.

Of the four, Noel's move in Cleveland was the one that showed the most promise.

He received the pass on the right block, spun into the chest of his defender, who outweighed him.

Noel, the superior athlete, used the contact to right himself. He squared his shoulders, and shot, and missed.

Last night in the first quarter Noel tried the same move. This time, it went in.

"It's a lot of progress. He made a hell of a move. He countered out of it. He had a shot I believe he's going to make," Brown said of the shot in Cleveland. "You look at the skill package of the move, you look at the growth in his free-throw percentage if he were to get fouled, and you look at the mentality where he wanted the ball."

Sixty-three games before, maybe Noel wouldn't have wanted the ball.

Now he does.

That's because he entered last night shooting 69.5 percent from the free-throw line in the last 35 games, up 16 percentage points. He expects to carry the club.

It's fashionable to call for Noel as a Rookie of the Year candidate, but that might be unfair to Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota's workhorse. True, Noel has been exceptional lately. He scored 19 points and pulled 14 rebounds last night, complementing his run over the 17 previous games, in which he averaged 14.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.2 blocks. The steals and blocks will suffer, since two games ago he moved from center to forward for the rest of the season.

Noel is making a surge, but he was absolutely invisible for stretches in the first half of the season. In the real world, Rookie of the Year means nothing.

Size doesn't really matter now, either. He weighs just 220 pounds, spread over a spindly, 6-11 frame.

Experience matters.

Heart matters.

Ask him about the play where he threw his 83 inches of Franchise on the floor for a loose ball, got it and fed a teammate for a dunk, and he'll point to his 11 misses in 18 field-goal attempts.

Ask him about the late free throws he made last night and he'll counter with the two he missed in overtime.

Ask him about the play in Cleveland and he won't take credit for good footwork or improvisation. He will just tell you he missed.

"Ten minutes later, you go into the locker room [in Cleveland] and you see his head buried between two towels, where he's clearly emotionally hurting, in a season when we've won 18 games and it's March 30th and that game's not getting us into the playoffs?" Brown asked. "All over the place, you see the growth of Nerlens Noel."

That, really, is the point.

 


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