By Michael Donovan

As the Sixers lurch from one preseason game to another without Ben Simmons, who is out until at least January, Jahlil Okafor, who had knee surgery last March, and Nerlens Noel (above with coach Brett Brown), who has a strained groin, the question must be asked:

Will Noel, the 2014 No. 1 pick, ever play again for the Sixers?

Check out what Tom Moore of Calkins Media (via HoopsHype) wrote:

Noel’s oncourt body language hasn’t been good. Fellow centers Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor did an ESPN interview after Wednesday’s practice in which Noel wasn’t included. An NBA source said Noel ‘was having groin pain during/after (his) pregame workout. Nothing more (to it).’ Noel, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft, voiced his displeasure that the Sixers still had three young centers — also Embiid and Okafor — on media day Sept. 26.

This frustration doesn’t mean Noel wants out of Philly, just that he has no desire to be part of a crowded center rotation that marginalizes its members. But regardless of how he feels, he’s the most tempting asset of the three.

Embiid is a third-year rookie whose blend of upside and injury risk makes him impossible to appraise. And Okafor is one of those seldom-sought towers who neither spaces the floor nor protects the paint.

Noel is more of a known commodity—a lengthy tower who can protect the rim and defend multiple positions. No NBA player has ever matched his per-game steal (1.8) and block (1.7) averages through rookie and sophomore seasons. And he will work as a high-end pick-and-roll diver on a team with shooters.

Trading for Noel is still complicated, though. The Sixers need to move a big, but they’ve held out thus far.

So Philly doesn’t want someone to pick him up for spare parts. At the same time, the team doesn’t have much leverage: Noel will be a restricted free agent next summer and won’t have issues finding a lucrative four-year offer sheet. The longer the Sixers wait, the more likely they are to lose him for nothing or shell out a contract they have no business funding.

Buyers who fancy Noel as more than a one-season lease should be able to find some middle ground. The right to match any offer he receives makes giving up picks or prospects easier, and Philly will only be under more pressure to strike a deal as the season progresses.

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