By Michael Bennett
It was time for Sixers coach Brett Brown to have a “come to Jesus” talk with rehabbing big Nerlens Noel, who reported to the 76ers’ training facility on Saturday.
“It was great seeing Nerlens,” Brett Brown said before Saturday’s game at The Center, a 120-105 win over Phoenix.
In addition to catching up Saturday, Brown and Noel, who had been rehabbing after minor knee surgery in Alabama the past three weeks, spoke about the big man’s future in “transparent” fashion.
Save for Hollis Thompson, no player on the Sixers’ current roster boasts a lengthier history with Brown than Noel.
“I’ve been with him for a long time,” said Brown. “It’s very clean and candid on what his role and what’s going to happen, how we’re going to try to make it work.”
The reality surrounding the Sixers’ center rotation, of course, is that the position is stocked with several other blue-chip prospects.
There’s Joel Embiid, whose performance through the first month of the season has been a promising revelation, and Jahlil Okafor, another lottery pick more than capable of filling a starting role with Brown’s current group.
Second-year forward Richaun Holmes has also established himself as a dependable option off the bench, giving the Sixers a somewhat different two-way look than Embiid and/or Okafor offer.
“We talked all about the plan going forward,” said Brown of his chat with Noel.
As for the specifics of this plan, Brown isn’t ready to commit to anything hard and fast. First and foremost, Noel needs to get back on the court.
Sunday, while the Sixers were practicing in Camden, Noel participated in film study, physical therapy, and strength and conditioning exercises.
“Most people that I talk to talk about a few week period that’s just going to let him play basketball again,” Brown said. “When he actually plays a game, I don’t know, but it’s going to take for sure a few weeks, just to get him back moving around and playing basketball again.”
Once Noel completes this phase of his recovery, a more definitive return-to-play roadmap will be created. For now, Brown wants the former number six pick focusing on factors he can control.
“First, just embracing the team aspect of everything, to come into this and to try to draw his own line in the sand, and reclaim minutes that he will want,” said Brown. “This is going to be on a deserved basis. We have a lot of people at that spot. We will help him. I will coach him. I will put him in an environment where he can succeed, and get him back in shape and integrate him with the team. Then, the team will tell me who’s on the floor, and who isn’t.”
Through the first two playing seasons of his career, Noel has averaged 10.5 points and 8.1 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game. Last year, especially over the final two-thirds of the regular season, his offensive efficiency underwent a considerable boost, as he finished the campaign with a 52.1 field goal percentage.
As much as Noel’s ability to dive to the basket represents a strength of his on the offensive end, his ability to protect the rim stands out defensively. The past two years, he’s racked up 242 blocks.
Brown said the directive to Noel going forward is for him to simply “be himself.”
“He’s different than all of our five men,” Brown explained. “He is an elite roller. He gets out of pick and rolls quick. He’s a big lob guy. Just putting pressure on the rim through rolling, to do that on offense.
“I think defensively, he’s very disruptive in his pick and roll defense. He’s got such quick hands, and he can backpedal, and not let the roller or the guard get behind him. He can make plays at the rim. He’s an elite shot-blocker. It’s just Nerlens being Nerlens.
“Notice I haven’t said anything about just becoming a really reliable 18-foot jump shooter, or really becoming a 90.0 percent free throw shooter. It’s just effort, athleticism, fitness, energy stuff.”
The Sixers’ pre-season opener October 4th in Amherst, Massachusetts was Noel’s only appearance of the preseason. He was diagnosed with a groin strain two days later.
Noel’s left knee operation was conducted on October 25th at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York by surgeon Dr. Riley Williams, with Sixers medical personnel present.
The 22-year old Kentucky product then opted to go through the first phase of his rehab in Birmingham, Alabama at Champion Sports Medicine, an athletic training and development company with ties to the Southeastern Conference.