More Sports:

December 15, 2015

Nerlens Noel has taken a step back so far this season

Sixers NBA

When talking about the Sixers, I think that we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. 

“Isaiah Canaan is NOT a point guard!”
“[Player X] belongs in the D-League!”
“1-25, this is an absolute disgrace!”

While all of those things might be true, they probably aren’t of critical importance when it comes to whether or not The Process ultimately works out. Josh Harris made it clear that he was disappointed in the team’s start, but deep down, he had to have known the 2015-16 Sixers were constructed to finish with one of the league’s worst records.

This isn’t to say the Sixers’ start hasn’t been disappointing. It’s just that focusing so much attention on point guard play seems counterproductive when there is a more important issue: The two young bigs are having trouble playing together, and they haven’t always looked great separately, either.

Due to the public nature of his off-court troubles, all of the words have already been written about Jahlil Okafor. Plus, he has shown some signs of improvement lately. Let’s focus on the other half of that duo, who is scuffling a bit more under the radar.

Here are a few basic stats from Nerlens Noel’s 75 games last season versus the 21 games he has played this year. Minus the scoring, everything is down. This is concerning because his numbers weren’t especially good to begin with.

Team Off. Rating 
 91.3 85.2
Net Rating  

Noel is shooting worse from both the field and line. His passing has become less of a weapon. The team has cratered to new depths offensively when he’s on the floor. That is also a reflection of his teammates, but the offense is worse with Noel on the floor than any Sixer with the exception of recent addition Tony Wroten.


Remember that Nerlens improved as the 2014-15 season progressed. At the beginning, he looked completely lost. The speed of the NBA game was too fast for him and he was still getting his footing after sitting out a year with an ACL injury. Once the training wheels were taken off, Noel’s offense got better.

Fully healthy and acclimated to the NBA, the hope was that he would pick up where he left off and build on that strong finish. That hasn’t happened. Noel’s play has tailed off even more when you just factor in the 31 games he played after February 1st (an admittedly arbitrary date) last season:

 2014-15 (after 2/1) 
 FG% 48.7 
Team Off. Rating
 Net Rating

Even the best of these numbers are representative of a below average offensive player, but given the lack of NBA talent surrounding Noel, it’s difficult to figure out how much his offensive deficiencies would matter alongside championship-level talent. When healthy and playing his natural center position, Noel has proven himself to be a unique defensive force.

From watching the games, one of the first culprits that you would point to is the presence of Okafor. How many times have we seen Noel drive wildly into traffic when the rookie big man was already stationed there? They have no space out there.

Per NBA Wowy, Noel's turnovers go up while his assists are cut down when playing with Big Jah. This matches up with what we're seeing: The passing lanes are small when those two play together.

Noel’s shooting numbers are also worse when Brett Brown plays his two young big men together, something he is doing less frequently lately. Unless something drastically changes, staggering the minutes as much as possible seems like the right move for each player's individual development.

I haven’t even touched on Noel’s defense, mostly because it’s less concerning to me in the long run. The two-center pairing has been an awkward fit on that end of the floor as well, and Noel has also likely battled through some injuries. Those things would explain why his steal and block numbers are both down, but Noel also hasn't exactly set the world on fire defensively either.

To be clear, I am still a big Nerlens Noel fan. Some of his defensive tools are flat-out special, and that hasn't changed. But just like last year, the Sixers could really benefit from him turning things around offensively. Considering that Noel tends to play better offensively with pass-first point guards (ex. T.J. McConnell), maybe Kendall Marshall can become this year's Ish Smith in the season's second half. There is still some hope here. 

If how Noel plays is more important than wins and losses, it’s still hard to argue that we're seeing development from him so far this year. Hopefully that changes.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann