76ers Musings: Nerlens Noel Keeping it Professional So Far

Despite Nerlens Noel voicing his displeasure over the team having too many big men, the fourth-year center is keeping things professional on the practice floor.

Big men Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid work out prior to a game against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this year | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid (left) and Nerlens Noel (right) working out before a game last year. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With training camp starting we’ll bring back our 76ers musing column, where we focus on a couple of (relatively) quick-hitting thoughts on topics being discussed about the Philadelphia 76ers.

You can read previous entries in the “Sixers Musings” series here.

Nerlens Noel keeping it professional
When Nerlens Noel came to the podium at Sixers media day, his words were clear: He didn’t think the Sixers having three starting caliber centers on the roster was going to work.

That isn’t entirely surprising, as I think even the most ardent “keep all the big men” proponents viewed that as a temporary solution until more information is known and a better decision could be made. But even though everybody knew the situation wasn’t workable long term, stating displeasure publicly to the press certainly hurts both Bryan Colangelo‘s ability to get optimal value and also has the potential to hurt team morale in the process.

To Noel’s credit, his concerns over the construction of the roster don’t seem to be impacting his professionalism on the practice floor and in the locker room.

“He handled [things] with me and in the training-camp session today like a pro,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer after the team’s first practice at training camp. “There was no moping or sulking or him being stubborn.”

Noel also does legitimately still seem to get along with his teammates. “I love my guys. Jahlil (Okafor) and Joel (Embiid) are probably some of the closest friends on this team that I have. It’s definitely not anything to do with that,” Noel emphasized on media day.

That was almost immediately backed up when Noel exited the press conference room, did his round of photographs and video interviews, then entered into an over-the-shoulder three-point contest from half-court with new teammate Ben Simmons. The disgruntled version of Noel seems to be very compartmentalized.

It’s obviously early, and it’s easier to be spirited on the first day of training camp than it is if all three centers are still on the roster two months from now and Noel’s playing 20 minutes per night and mostly out of position. But it’s one thing for Noel to publicly voice his displeasure over the depth at the center position, and it’s an entirely different thing if Noel begins to mail it in and become a distraction in the locker room. It’s only then that Colangelo would be completely backed into a corner.

Feeling good for Joel Embiid
Whenever we talk about Joel Embiid, it’s usually focused on his enormous potential, the considerable injury risk that’s always in the back of our minds, or the fact that he hasn’t yet proven his ability to play against NBA talent, all of which are true and valid.

But when you go back and remove basketball from the equation and just look at the human element to all of this, it’s easy to get excited for Embiid’s turnaround.

Embiid uprooted himself from his life and family in Cameroon to come over and play basketball. His reward for that over the last two-plus years have seemingly been one devastating setback after another. Watching from the sidelines as Kansas fell to Stanford in the NCAA tournament. The devastating news about the fracture in his right navicular bone just days before the draft, and the uncertainty over how that would impact his stock. The passing of his brother, Arthur, in a tragic car accident just a few months later in October 2014. The news that a second surgery would be needed after seemingly climbing all the way back the first time.

Yet despite all of those trials and tribulations, Joel Embiid has apparently handled his second rehabilitation and recovery with the utmost of professionalism, with nary a word written about any lapse in attitude or effort, all of this despite spending most of the past year in a supposed losing, insidious culture. We frequently talk about athletes growing up, and this certainly appears to be true in Embiid’s case, at least from the outside.

So when you hear Embiid joke about having a 20-year career during his media day press conference, or talk about how he’s waited too long to officially practice with a team to let the flu hold him out of action, it’s hard not to be excited that he’s finally seeing the court. Not just as a basketball fan, but for Embiid himself.

Optimism for Richaun Holmes
The first question directed at Bryan Colangelo during media day was one asking how he felt when he heard about Noel’s displeasure over having three natural, starting quality centers. It took precisely ten seconds for Colangelo to pivot away from Noel and go out of his way to point out that the team actually has four such centers, singling out Richaun Holmes as somebody who has had such a good summer that he’s worthy of being included in that group as well.

A cynic might argue that Colangelo, responding to Noel’s displeasure over having too many big men and not enough minutes by going out of his way to mention the presence of yet another big man deserving of minutes, was perhaps trying to send a message about Noel’s lack of leverage in this situation. Colangelo certainly wouldn’t be the first executive to use the media in such a way.

Yet despite that, Holmes is certainly somebody to keep your eye on. His combination of size, strength, athleticism, and touch around the rim is a solid base to build a legitimate NBA rotation big man out of.

Let’s slow the talk of him being a legitimate defensive replacement for Nerlens Noel, though. Holmes doesn’t have Noel’s exceptionally rare ability to switch pick and rolls and keep up with guards on the perimeter, doesn’t match Noel’s quick hands and ability to force turnovers, and his defensive rebounding (11.7 percent defensive rebounding rate last year) threatens to seriously limit his overall effectiveness if not resolved. Holmes has a lot of physical tools defensively but has to get more disciplined to really become an impact defender, and it’s worth pointing out that Holmes is actually older than Noel, despite Noel having two years of NBA experience on him.

Exciting prospect, but shouldn’t be the deciding factor on what to do with Noel and his upcoming contract situation.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.