On the Absence of Nerlens Noel

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft didn't play at all this season. It makes sense why, but it still hurts.

When the Sixers traded Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first rounder, we told ourselves a few things. For one, we knew Nerlens Noel is not Andrew Bynum. A torn ACL is not a chronic injury. Noel won't have to grow knee tissue in a petri dish. He was just 19 years old last June.

But as the season went on, and the likelihood that Noel would play this season shrank, his lengthy rehabilitation tested the patience of the Sixers fans that stuck around this season.

26-straight losses and one cryptic Tweet later, people began to clamor for Noel's debut in a Sixers uniform. "At least see what he can do out there!" they shouted. "They won't play him because he would make them so much better. Can't stop the tank!" they cried.

But at the end of it all, playing Noel simply wasn't worth it. Why risk the catastrophic worst-case scenario of another injury? Why possibly subject him to a shattered confidence as he struggles to get adjusted to the NBA's speed and physicality?

I agreed with the Sixers' decision to keep Noel on the sidelines. After all, his long-term health is far more crucial to this team's ultimate championship aspirations than infusing some excitement into the last two weeks of a tanktastic regular season.

Logic tells us to trust Sam Hinkie's calculated rebuild. He's got a strong draft record dating back to his Houston days and his constant message of patience during his few public comments carry the same tone of the San Antonio Spurs organization.

But your brain can't overrule that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Spreadsheets and SportVu data and analytics can't stop your heart from aching during a 19-win season. We need some glimpse of hope to latch onto and ride towards that finish line in three or four or five years down the road. That's why Michael Carter-Williams' Rookie of the Year-worthy play was so essential to making this season even remotely stomachable. That's why, even though it made little sense, it would have been awesome to see Noel out there on an NBA court. The vines of him obliterating the rims at PCOM are enough of a taste, but in Philly we want to swallow down an entire Wawa Classic Hoagie.

It sucks Noel didn't play. It really does. But we know better. Nerlens Noel is not Andrew Bynum. A torn ACL is not chronically degenerating knees. He jumper has been rebuilt, he has added inches to his vertical, he will be playing basketball for the Sixers next year and for years to come.

So here's to Noel battling two other Sixers' lottery picks for the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year. This year may have sucked, but next year is going to be so damn fun.

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