By Scott Howard-Cooper,

Skyscraper flat-top hair, 6 feet and 11 inches of policing the basket on defense, long strides down court — long strides without sign of knee trouble, it’s worth noting. It shouldn’t be hard to see Nerlens Noel coming.

Noel is hardly coming from the outside, not when he was one of the top rookies all along and especially since a sluggish November. But the 76ers center is unquestionably making a move on Andrew Wiggins as the pursuit of Rookie of the Year enters the final quarter of the regular season.

It’s not just the Noel surge either. It’s that the improved offense, the area that had been lacking before, combined with continued production with rebounding and blocked shots, has come at the same time Wiggins has leveled off. The Minnesota small forward going in a straight line is still a very positive direction, and he has the important credential of easily being the better two-way player over the course of the season. But this has gotten good.

Noel has at least 11 rebounds in five of the last six games. He reached double-digits on the defensive end alone in three of the six. He blocked 13 shots in the same six outings, raising his season-long average to 1.90, eighth-best in the league. Not eighth-best among rookies.

In 10 games since the All-Star break, Noel is averaging 11.8 points and 10 rebounds while posting better numbers in steals (No. 11 in the league) and free-throw percentage than Wiggins in nine appearances post-New York. Noel’s case would be much stronger if he wasn’t giving back the gains from the field, from 46 percent in January and 46.8 in February to 42.9 in five outings in March despite limited shooting range, but still. Noel has earned his way into the top 10 overall in two key categories. It would seem impossible for Rookie of the Year voters to dismiss that with the same ease they may have viewed Wiggins as the easy choice a month ago.

At the very least, even with Wiggins still the man to beat, the race has tightened and suddenly become interesting, with Wiggins in his third consecutive month of decline in shooting percentage and Noel now blocking more shots than most everyone in the league despite 30.8 minutes a night and collecting more steals than any power forward or center.

The 20-year-old University of Kentucky product says he’s feeding off the confidence that Sixers head coach Brett Brown and the rest of the staff has shown him this season.

“Coach is drawing a few more plays up for me,” Noel told reporters recently. “I’m just staying active and finding my spots, taking the shots I know I can hit. It’s just mes staying conscious on the offensive end.”

Clearly Noel’s strength coming out of Kentucky was his defensive prowess and his many highlight-reel blocks illustrate just that. However, one of the more pleasant surprises for the Sixers this season has been Noel’s improvement on the offensive end.

Noel spent a majority of last season, once he was healthy enough following March 2013 ACL surgery, to take the floor after the injury, working on his jump shot. That hard work is starting to be dividends for the 6-foot-11 center.

“We’re seeing him get better and better,” Brown says. “I’m so proud of his evolution and development. He’s really starting to grow as a leader outside of what we’re seeing on the court.”

Not surprisingly, Noel has been strongest offensively in the paint. So far this season He is shooting 48.6 percent of his shots in the lane and 61.7 percent of his free-throws.

It’s that kind of dominance in the painted area that has Brown most excited about the rookie’s improvement through the course of the season.

“He has to go to mean it,” Brown said. “You’re not getting graded on circus shots. You have to go because he can. he’s so gifted. Right hand. left hand. And he’s so quick off the floor. He gets to the rim quick. He’ll lurk behind backboards and Ish Smith will find him. All those things along with the free-throws.”

While it will always be an unknown what the future holds for Noel as long as Sam Hinkie is the Sixers’ general manager, but from the looks of it this team is going to have a formidable pair of big man at both ends of the floor once Joel Embiid is healthy enough to take the floor.

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