Nerlens Noel collected a bounce pass a few feet above the right block. He slammed a power dribble towards the baseline before throwing a nasty head-fake to send Dewayne Dedmon flying out of bounds. The stage was set, and Noel delivered a thrilling performance. He soared for a one-handed jam, his eyes level to the rim.
Sure, it was against the upstart Orlando Magic and it was only Summer League, but Nerlens Noel's 26 minutes on Saturday were his first since February 12, 2013. And, 19 points, 4 steals, 3 assists and 1 block was quite an opening act.
"It was good to see him out there," Sixers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce said. Pierce is serving as the team's head coach during the Orlando Pro Summer League. "He had a nice little nervous smile before the game, which is to be expected, but anytime you're in that position that Nerlens was and you get a dunk to start the game, that settles you instantly."
He followed the opening possession with a ridiculous left-handed, circus-shot three-point play. Next up, a one-handed flush on a fast break that looked like it hurt the rim. Mix in a few blocks and the obviously breath-taking agility, Noel was the talk of press row in Orlando.
"It's very validating," Noel said. "It felt great today. I'm real happy but I can't get too happy. I still have to be motivated, I've got to stay focused and keep working to get better and better."
On the surface, he's a freakishly long shot-blocker with long arms and an epic high-top fade. But he's also a 6-11 freak athlete who showed how he can blow up pick and rolls by hedging out to the perimeter and stripping opposing point guards' pockets. He can catch the ball at the top of the key, take two dribbles and finish while flying towards the rim. He can catch the ball in the high post and find weak-side cutters shooting up the baseline. He's a cerebral player.
"We want him to be disciplined, we want him to be quick, we want him to be athletic, but we also want him to stay within our scheme," Pierce said. "He's got great quickness with his hands and his feet and you saw some of that tonight."
During Noel's rehab, Brett Brown notably spent the entire 2013-14 season rehabilitating Noel's shot as well. A 52.9 percent free throw shooter in 2012-13 at Kentucky, Noel drilled all seven of his free throw attempts on Saturday. He redesigned form had no bend at the knee and he released the ball high about his head as he fully extended his arms upward.
That's the foundation of a form that he'll hopefully be able to take outside the paint during live-ball action.
"Part of the year was spent with Nerlens was just trying to break down the mechanics of his shot," Pierce said. "For him to get to the line seven times and make all seven, his confidence has to be through the roof. Do we expect him to do it every single night, that's going to be tough. But we definitely want to build on what he was able to do today."
There's still a long way to go, however.
He did look winded as the second half progressed. It might not be until December until Noel will be able to play fully up to speed with the NBA game. It's one thing to be able to score in the post over guys likes of Dedmon, Romero Osby and Vernon Macklin. It's another to bang and battle against the starting quality centers in today's NBA. At 228 pounds, he'd be best served adding seven more pounds of muscle if he wants to score on bigger and more talented defenders.
The key is simply that he has a ridiculously tremendous foundation to build upon. He's far from a finished project, but the prospects of what a 20-year-old Nerlens Noel can do during an entire NBA regular season are all that the Sixers and Sam Hinkie have sold them to be.