Sixers’ coach wants more leadership from Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor

By Keith Pompey

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Sixers Coach Brett Brown wants more leadership from young stars Nerlens Noel, left, and Jahlil Okafor, right. Philadelphia lost 126-98 to Atlanta on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016.
Sixers Coach Brett Brown wants more leadership from young stars Nerlens Noel, left, and Jahlil Okafor, right. Philadelphia lost 126-98 to Atlanta on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. Associated Press

In a way, Brett Brown called out the Philadelphia 76ers’ two most high profile players, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, on Friday.

The Sixers’ coach was still disappointed in his squad’s effort Thursday in a 126-98 setback at home to the Atlanta Hawks.

“We sort of looked around at each other, and we can’t do that,” Brown said after practice. “I put it right on Nerlens’ and Jahlil’s doorsteps.

“As things are happening, they can’t be quiet. They have to find ways to lead.”

For the most part, the leadership of the Sixers (4-34) has come from recently reacquired point guard Ish Smith and the coaching staff.

But Brown said that high-profile, higher-drafted players “have to learn how to grow to be leaders. We took a punch last night and never really responded.”

The two post players are the faces of the franchise, based on their draft status.

Noel was projected go first overall in the 2013 draft. But he slipped all the way down to the New Orleans Pelicans at the sixth spot after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his lone season at Kentucky. The Sixers acquired him in exchange for point guard Jrue Holiday on draft night.

Okafor was drafted third overall out of Duke in June.

“We talk about them as our highest-drafted players,” Brown said. “I feel like it’s on me to take that profile and mesh it in with leadership skills and some level of grumpiness, competitiveness. Like, that ain’t acceptable.

“It’s not acceptable. Grab people and talk to them and put their own hand up and get back on transition defense.”

The Hawks scored 33 fastbreak points on 12-for-18 shooting. They scored 29 points off the Sixers’ 22 turnovers.

The Sixers pulled within 11 points twice in the third quarter. But for the most part, they looked disinterested against the Hawks and eventually trailed by as many as 35 points late.

“Yeah, we definitely should be more vocal, especially myself being a third-year guy on this team,” said Noel, who sat out the fourth quarter. “When we get down like that, whether I’m in the game or not, I have to do a better job helping the guys, especially defensive rotations.”

On Thursday, one mistake led to two, three and sometimes four on blown rotations. Noel said it’s on him to get teammates motivated to guard a little bit better.

He and Okafor were among the players making miscues in transition defense. At times, they had a hard time locating the player they were defending while getting back on defense.

Part of Noel’s problem is that he is playing power forward in the twin towers lineup that features Okafor at center. Noel thrives as rim protector at center. But since the 6-foot-11, 223-pounder is the better defender, he has to slide to power forward when the two play together.

“It’s going to be the same old same old until April 13 or whenever our last game is,” Brown said of Noel playing out of position. “That’s the challenge [with] those two guys on the floor, offensively and defensively. But I can’t abandon it. That’s my job.”

The Sixers will look to improve on their transition defense Saturday night against the Toronto Raptors at the Wells Fargo Center.

But it will be another tough task. The first-place Raptors, who were 22-15 heading into their game Friday at Washington, posted 20- and 16-point victories in two previous meetings with the Sixers this season. Toronto also has defeated the Sixers 10 straight times.