Nerlens Noel is back in his element. As the youngsters say, he has his swag back.
But how long will it last?
Part of the post player’s recent success with the 76ers has to do with the reacquisition of point guard Ish Smith. The other part is that the 6-foot-11, 223-pounder is back at center while Jahlil Okafor is sidelined with a sore right knee. Okafor is expected to return Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena.
But for now, Noel is just enjoying his time at his natural position, especially with Smith feeding him the ball.
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“I just feel engaged the whole game,” said Noel, whose team suffered a 95-91 setback to Utah Jazz on Monday night. “I feel like I can put up numbers throughout the whole [stat] line when I’m especially engaged like that and help my team in so many ways that not too many people can.”
The former Kentucky standout proved while Okafor missed Monday’s game and Saturday’s contest against the Phoenix Suns.
Noel made eight of nine shots en route to finishing with 18 points. He also had six rebounds, two steals and a season-high five blocked shots.
This came after he posted perhaps his best all-around performance of the season Saturday in a 111-104 victory over the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Noel started the game with an alley-oop dunk from Smith on the Sixers’ first possession. He ended the matchup with his eighth double-double of the season. The 21-year-old made 6 of 7 shots and finished with 14 points to go with 11 rebounds. He also had three steals and two blocked shots.
So in those two games, Noel averaged 16 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 3.5 blocks. He also made 14 of 16 shots.
But will the Sixers (2-31) be able to keep Noel involved as a power forward when Okafor returns? If the first 31 games were any indication, Noel’s game suffered when he was on the floor with the 6-11 rookie.
“That is something that we have to figure out,” Smith said of getting Noel involved once Okafor returns. “That’s a good problem when you have two guys that talented on the same floor. I’m not comparing us to the Clippers, but I see how Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan work together. It’s just when one’s lobbing and one posts up, [Chris Paul] does a great job of balancing those two out and getting [shooting guard] J.J. Redick together.”
Smith returned to the Sixers Thursday in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans for two second-round picks. The team initially claimed him off waivers in February but chose not to re-sign him in the offseason.
“The first thing I noticed when the trade happened was how was [keeping Nerlens and Okafor both involved] going to work,” Smith said. “But it’s a good problem to have.”
Coach Brett Brown said that Noel’s past two performances could change things dramatically if they can reconstruct where Noel and Okafor can and should play. A rim-protector, Noel is better suited to play the center position.
Okafor has the better offensive skillset that would enable to be a better offensive threat than Noel at power forward. However as asubpar defender, Okafor would be a liability away from the basket.
Meanwhile, Noel and Smith have chemistry and the point guard goes out of his way to give Noel the ball. The Sixers still planned to bring Noel off the bench against smaller, more athletic lineups.
“I’m so influenced by matchups,” Coach Brett Brown said. “You can’t force-feed defensive matchups. Like all of a sudden they go with … a stretch four, I’m not going to force-feed Jahlil and Nerlens on the court. It should clearly be JaKarr [Sampson] and Jerami [Grant] sprinting around and chasing somebody. So my motive is for sure to grow those two [Noel and Okafor]. But it’s highly influenced by matchups on the court.”
Understandably, Noel wants to remain in the starting the lineup all the time. He’s confident that he can defend athletic forwards.
“Even when I did come off the bench, against Memphis, I can back into the game,” Noel said. “They didn’t want me to guard Jeff Green, but I was guarding Vince Carter throughout the game. But they weren’t doing anything. So that aspect I think I’m confident with it.
“I don’t really understand if it’s the start of the game or even the third or fourth quarter, I’m still guarding them at some point when me and Jahlil are in the game.”
But after Monday, has Noel shown enough to get the start at center while Okafor comes off the bench in a small-ball situation?
We’ll most-likely find out Wednesday night against the Kings (12-19).
“The Sacramento game is interesting because it is a track meet,” Brown said. “It’s going to be [center] DeMarcus Cousins and like Rudy [Gay] at the four or [Omri] Casspi at four. So straight away that pairing is not good for Nerlens and Jahlil on the floor together. So you are going to have to probably split that up and go apples for apples with the mobility that Sacramento is going to have, the pace they are going to play with.”