The ESPN cameras turned to Nerlens Noel on Tuesday night at the Midtown Hilton in Manhattan, and he flashed that toothy smile of his, lowered his high-topped head, and opened his suit jacket, marking maybe the first time that a blazer's lining has broken news. The inside flaps of Noel's jacket said "PHILA 15" in blue and white - a creative way for the 76ers to have a player presumed to be a franchise cornerstone reveal the design of their new uniforms.
"It's as much as you can show," Noel said. "The stars on the side, you can't fit it all in there. It's nice."
Considering what Sam Hinkie has done over his two years as the Sixers' general manager, Noel could be forgiven for wondering whether he'd ever wear the actual jersey. Jrue Holiday was an all-star and the franchise's face, representing the Sixers at the lottery just as Noel did Tuesday night. At the 2013 draft, Hinkie traded Holiday - for Noel. Then Michael Carter-Williams became the Sixers' front man, and soon he was gone, too.
Now, until Joel Embiid finally suits up, the Sixers' face is Noel. He's coming off that terrific rookie season that showed the versatility of his game (9.9 points per game, 8.1 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.8 steals over 75 games) and heartened anyone who worried that his spindly body and ACL tear might make him a bad bet to withstand the rigors of a full NBA season.
He proved that he is a good young player who can be a building block. But this is Sam Hinkie, and he has a process, and the Sixers have shown that they have no problem discarding a good young player for the sake of that process. So didn't sitting on that stage Tuesday night as a symbol - the same symbol Holiday and Carter-Williams were - give Noel any pause about his future with the Sixers?
"No, no, no - that's not on my mind at all," he said. "I'm focused on helping build this team on the right path, building with the right coach, and bringing in young guys so we can really make a wave."
Noel's participation in the lottery and Embiid's in the Sixers' interviews during the NBA draft combine in Chicago last week do suggest that Hinkie has bestowed most-favored-player status on the two of them. "There are things you can look at on our roster that you can assume would be solidified," Hinkie said.
But the word solidified goes only so far at this stage of the Sixers' rebuilding, and no matter how much Hinkie tries to work around it, there is a conflict cutting to the core of what he's trying to accomplish - and he's the one who created that conflict. He traded Holiday. He traded Carter-Williams. He makes move after move. And even if he can justify every deal, even if he really regards Embiid and Noel as fixtures, he still has to reassure them that they are, because they're not blind.
So, for example, after trading Carter-Williams, Hinkie called both Embiid and Noel to let them know what he had done and why.
"I explained to them how they should think about how some things spill over into others and some things don't, and that they shouldn't read too much into any of these things," Hinkie said. "And I talked to them in their exit interviews at the end of the year about what kind of program we were trying to build and where they would fit in it, and how they might fit into the program has as much to do with them as it does with any grand design.
"It has as much to do with them and how they step up into a particular void. Sometimes, those voids - voids of leadership, voids in who the best player is, voids in a play - don't stay for very long. Someone steps into it. They'll have the first two chances at that."
Hinkie described those phone calls, his willingness to keep Embiid and Noel in the loop, as the decent thing to do. "They're not without their anxieties, too," he said. "That stuff matters." And he needs to do it. Read those two paragraphs above again. He's not guaranteeing them anything, because Hinkie won't ever guarantee anything, but it's as close as he'll come.
Truth be told, Hinkie's history is the primary reason, maybe the only one, for either Noel or Embiid to worry at all. Talk to people who have watched Embiid work out since the season ended, and they'll tell you that, if he remains healthy, he will make Hinkie look very smart for having drafted him last year. And with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor at the top of most draft boards, the Sixers' getting the third pick this year cools the speculation that they would trade Noel to make room on the roster for another talented post player.
For his part, Noel didn't sound as if he'd pay much mind to those rumors, anyway. "I have a lot of confidence in Sam," he said. "It hasn't failed us so far. Joel's healthy and looking great - great. He's moving well. I feel good. I'm healthy. We're moving forward, and things are in place. I feel good about everything."
He'll feel even better once he puts that new uniform on for real, though, and wears it for a good long while, and knows for certain that he's something more than a symbol.