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Nerlens Noel Quietly Improving Outside the Spotlight

In the ever-controversial world of arbitrary rankings, ESPN reached the highest-ranked member of the Sixers Friday, with Nerlens Noel coincidentally clocking in at number 76.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking. Who cares about a meaningless list, the main purpose of which is to generate content during the slow period leading up to the season? Generally speaking, I would agree with you and echo Kobe Bryant’s sentiments, “Please don’t ask me about silly stuff like that.”

However, I only bring it up to illustrate what I find to be an interesting a point: it’s fairly unusual for someone generally considered to be his team’s best player to fly this far under the radar. The vast majority of the buzz surrounding the Sixers all offseason and leading up to the preseason has been centered around the team’s latest arrival, Jahlil Okafor. The situation is not unlike the general public being caught up in the release of the latest piece of technology. You have to check out our 2016 big man model. It can be seamlessly integrated into your current system and includes a new drop-step feature.

For a second-year player who just finished as a Rookie of the Year finalist, these circumstances may serve as a blessing in disguise. Noel is free from the burden of trying to single-handedly lift the franchise out of the Atlantic Division muck. He can quietly go about his business of anchoring the team’s defense while maybe, just maybe, blossoming into something more than a hustle player around the margins on the offensive end.

Noel spent the summer sequestered in Rhode Island, working on his jump shot and post moves in an effort to become a more complete player. The early returns during his first two preseason games have been very promising. Playing just a little over 24 minutes per game, Noel has averaged 11.5 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 assists, two steals, and one block. Noel already established himself last season as a force on the defensive end. Now, Noel is starting to look polished when he’s controlling the ball himself, not just when he’s swatting it out of opposing players’ hands.

In the opening preseason contest against the Wizards, Noel backed Kris Humphries down into the paint, faked to his left, and came back with a right-handed baby hook. A couple of nights later against the Cavaliers, he split two defenders with a spin move in the lane and finished with the left. Last year, if Noel had tried something like that, the ball was just as likely to be flung off the backboard, if not into the third row. But this dropped casually through the hoop. It’s a small sample size, but teams may have to add a new arsenal of moves to the scouting report on young Nerlens.

Unfortunately, Sixers fans will have to wait to see more of Noel’s progress first-hand. He just suffered contusions to the left knee and lower back and is not expected to play Saturday night against Brooklyn. Whenever he returns to the court, though, keep an eye out for Nerlens’ blossoming two-way game. You may have to squint through the glare of the spotlight surrounding Jahlil Okafor, but it’s ultimately worth a look.

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