September 26, 2016
Throughout the Sixers’ busy offseason, one player seemed to be conspicuously absent from all of the team’s on and off-court activities: Nerlens Noel. And whether or not the fourth-year big man was sending a message throughout the summer, he’s certainly not happy with the current frontcourt situation.
That much Noel made clear on Monday afternoon at the Sixers new practice facility in Camden. Crystal clear.
“I don’t see a way of it working,” Noel said when asked about himself, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor all on the roster at the same time.
“It’s just a logjam. You have three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night, and three centers [can’t] play 30-plus minutes a night. And that’s that.”
Noel mentioned that it’s not in his personality to sugarcoat anything, and he certainly didn’t mince words at Sixers media day. The question of how the team’s three young centers can co-exist has been raised frequently this offseason, and Noel confirmed that he shares those concerns.
Despite consistent reporting that suggested otherwise, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo again maintained that he didn’t actively shop any of his young big men in the offseason. One of the reasons for that is the uncertainty surrounding the extremely talented Embiid, who hasn’t played in his first two NBA seasons due to injuries.
“The other thing we’ve talked a lot about is just the unknown of the health of the other players,” Colangelo said. “Joel Embiid is coming and he has yet to play an NBA game and we talked about the cautionary talent there.”
“So it’s a step for [Joel], it’s a step for others,” he later added. “We’re thrilled to be in the situation that we’re in to have the depth we have at that position.”
For Noel, this line of thinking simply isn’t good enough.
“I can’t say I do really understand that,” Noel said. “If you have a group of players, I just don’t think it makes too much sense to still come into the season with such a heavy lineup at the center position. I don’t know what there is to wait and see.”
The Sixers' glut in the middle was always going to be one of the main preseason storylines, something the Sixers were well aware of. Surprise returnee and veteran big man Elton Brand said he spoke to Noel a couple of times late in the summer and gave him the advice to stay connected to the team.
"Be around the group, develop with the group because anything else is not going to bode well for him," Brand said was the gist of his message. "He's not holding the best cards right now. You need to be part of the system, part of the group, give your best effort, and let the chips fall. Don't be an outsider.
"You're going to play, and it's going to be that the best player is going to play, whoever fits the system best. We're talking about 'small ball,' he's a great small ball, today's game center. Switching, he can switch almost every position, athletic, going to the rim. He's going to have the ability to get minutes and to be a part of any team."
For his part, Okafor put on a more positive public face about the current situation.
"We're going to figure that out," Okafor said. "That's why we're excited about this training camp, it's completely different from last year. Last year, I kind of knew going in Nerlens and I were the two bigs. This year, there's no telling what's going to happen."
According to Noel, who finds himself in a contract year, he’s strictly unhappy with the basketball situation. He made it clear that he’s personally close to both Okafor and Embiid, and enjoys living and playing in Philadelphia. But among those players, Noel has dealt with the most losing. The trade that sent him to Philadelphia on draft night in 2013 officially kickstarted “The Process.”
After sitting out his first year while rehabbing from a torn ACL, Noel has played two seasons in which the Sixers won a combined 28 games. Has he developed any scars from all of the losing?
“Yeah I think I’m built up a little bit now,” Noel said. “Scars, I don’t know what scars could do or couldn’t do. I don’t know what that fully means, but I think I’ve been built up from it. I’ve gone through a whole lot, probably the most arguably any player has ever gone through in the NBA of just losing.”
“It’s a tough situation to still be in, year by year, to see things get more difficult to show your value. Year by year, it’s always been something. It’s really at a point where it’s just a lot.”
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