Most of the discussion about the 76ers this season has focused on the franchise's rebuilding strategy rather than the action on the basketball court. Then again, that might be a good thing considering Philadelphia has accumulated 61 losses heading into Thursday.
But amid the struggles, the Sixers actually have a real, live basketball player worth talking about: Nerlens Noel.
For all the chatter about Philadelphia embarrassing the NBA, the 76ers have actually fielded some promising on-court results, ranking No. 11 in defensive efficiency (102.0) this season. A good deal of that improvement and defensive competency is thanks to Noel, the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft, who had his rookie year delayed a season due to a torn ACL. But what the Kentucky product has done this season was well worth the wait as he toes rookie history.
Noel is very, very close to averaging 2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game (as of Thursday, he’s averaging 1.9 blocks and 1.7 steals per game.) He actually was puling off the statistical feat until suffering a mini-block drought to end March. So why is the benchmark significant? It's rare for one player to possess the defensive skills needed to protect the rim and disrupt passing lanes and pester ball handlers. Consider this: Only one other rookie since the NBA started counting blocks in 1973 averaged at least 2 blocks and 1.5 steals his rookie season—David Robinson in 1989-90. Even more impressive for Noel is that Robinson was 24 his rookie year, after playing four years at Navy and serving two years of military service. Noel turns 21 on Friday, meaning he will put up historic numbers in a season in which he can’t legally drink.
And Noel’s defensive numbers aren’t just impressive compared to other rookies, they hold up against just about anyone else in the league. That 2/1.5 plateau? Anthony Davis is the only other player in the NBA to reach it this year. For some perspective on how rare it is to combine those skills: Tim Duncan, widely considered to be the best defensive player of his generation, has never averaged 2/1.5. Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, hit that mark exactly one time, in his eighth year as a pro. While there’s obviously more to playing defense than racking up vanity stats, Noel’s season is still incredible, especially given how rookies typically struggle to pick up professional defense.
And here’s the scary part for everyone outside the 76ers organization: That 2/1.5 mark might be Noel’s floor. In 26 games since the All-Star break, he’s averaging 13.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.1 steals. Since 1973, only two players averaged at least 2.5 blocks and 2 steals per game over a full season—Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, who incredibly did it four times. That’s it.
It’s tempting to attribute Noel’s gaudy numbers to the 76ers' frantic pace. While his steals per game can be expected to increase with more possessions, his steal percentage should remain basically the same. That counter-argument doesn’t pass muster though, given Noel’s rate stats. He’s No. 10 in the league in steals at 1.7 per game, and he’s posting a steal percentage of 2.9% (the approximate of how often an opponent possession ends with a steal). But Noel actually ranks higher in steal percentage, as he’s tied for No. 6 in that category. Noel is posting a higher steal percentage than noted pickpockets like Chris Paul, Iman Shumpert, Jeff Teague, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe.
Noel is not just sticking his long arms out to disrupt passing lanes. On some of his steals, he flashes quick hands that just aren’t common among big man, nimbly poking balls away from players who should ostensibly be more adept ball handlers. Here he simply takes Will Barton’s lunch money when the guard ventures into the lane:
Similarly, Noel’s block percentage holds up against some of the biggest defensive names in the league. He ranks No. 13 in the NBA in that category. Noel blocks shots more frequently than Andre Drummond, Derrick Favors or Marc Gasol. All this for a rookie coming off a major injury with one of the worst supporting casts in the league.
Even with concerns about his knee and relatively thin frame, Noel’s rim protection was always supposed to be an elite skill coming out of college. Every now and then, he’ll flash some of the athleticism that made him the presumptive No. 1 pick pre-injury, which is a good sign that the ACL setback didn’t sap too much of his athleticism. For instance, as DeMarcus Cousins backed Noel down in a game recently, the Sixers center got knocked a step backwards with a well-placed shoulder bump. Noel still had the athleticism to quickly get up to turn away the shot:
NBA.com’s player tracking stats bear out Noel’s defensive impact, too. According to that data, opponents are shooting just 45.4% at the rim when being guarded by Noel, which is one of the best marks in the league. Players who trail him in that category include Howard, Duncan and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green.
Any look at Noel’s game would be incomplete without evaluating him on the offensive end, where he’s still a work in progress. Philadelphia is 3.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively when he’s off the court, and his game on that end consists primarily of hunting for offensive rebounds and cutting along the baseline. But he’s grown in that regard as well.
He’s upped his scoring average (9.9 to 13.1) in the second half of the season and he's shooting a much more respectable 48.7% since the break. He's also shown the quickness to blow past slower big men, as he does here to Hedo Turkoglu:
And while it’s still a rare sight, Noel has flashed glimpses of a usable jumper, which could be a sign of things to come. Against Cousins last week, Noel displayed a counter-move that led to a fadeaway jump shot. That part of his game is still a ways away, but it could give the 76ers reason to believe Noel can stretch his range out to the elbow, which would be crucial if he’s going to share the floor with Joel Embiid or another lottery big man.
Some of the public outcry over the Sixers’ plan might be due to the impression that all Philadelphia’s players are viewed as assets, and that anyone can be moved for the right price. Michael Carter-Williams was unceremoniously jettisoned at the trade deadline—half a season after winning Rookie of the Year – and the big return was yet another draft pick. Rookie K.J. McDaniels showed some promise and was promptly dealt for a second-rounder. But Noel is playing well enough that the 76ers may finally have something tangible to show for their rebuilding efforts—a player the franchise can start to build around.