As the speculation about the Cleveland Cavaliers trading for Kevin Love has intensified over the past few days, a very specific sentiment started to whisper throughout the Las Vegas Summer League and was echoed on Twitter: Cleveland would simply have been better off if it just drafted Nerlens Noel No. 1 overall over Anthony Bennett in 2013.
"I think it's ridiculous the Cavs didn't take him No. 1," one fellow SB Nation writer told me. "And I think it's ridiculous that he fell as far as he did. You knew he was going to be a starting center in this league. You knew he was going to be an elite shot blocker."
Noel showed plenty of potential, but he only played in five of the Sixers' 11 Summer League games over the past two weeks, averaging roughly 13.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals throughout stretches in both Orlando and Las Vegas. He's shown flashes of the highlight defensive plays and acrobatic dunking ability affiliated with his one-day projection of an All-Star NBA center. Plain and simple: he's been great. And, outside of barely playing due to precautionary measures, he was all we could have expected and asked for in Summer League.
Still, he's far from a finished product. When healthy, he's should score 10 points, grab six or seven rebounds and block about two shots per game just based off his size and athleticism alone. But there were times where he struggled against summer league bigs who were bigger and stronger than him, guys who aren't nearly as strong as some opposing NBA centers.
He scored seven first-quarter points against the Bulls on Thursday, finishing off the period with a ferocious jam. But then to open the second quarter, when he was isolated 6-feet away from the basket with just an undrafted David Wear between him and the rim, Noel couldn't move Wear an inch as he attempted to back him down. Nerlens then flung the ball 25 feet in the air over his head, hoping against all hope that Scottie Wilbekin was ready on the opposite wing to grab the loose ball. In the third quarter, he tried to back down Cam Bairstow and Bulls' second round pick essentially shoved him out of the paint with ease. Nerlens almost landed out of bounds.
"I definitely have to work hard the rest of this summer to get that size back on and be able to maintain the weight. I think it'll be a little different in the big leagues, having some more grittier guys next to me on the block," Noel said. "I have to continue to grow as these games go on and be able to bounce back and if I'm not getting it done offensively I gotta do it on the defensive end I thought I was very timid on the post moves and really over-thinking things."
The Sixers' coaching staff, knowing his physical limitations, has obviously taken a patient approach with him as well.
"For the most part, you just have to coach him like everybody else," Sixers assistant coach Chad Iske said. "Take him out sometimes when he's not doing what we need him to do or what's asked of him in the offense or the defense."
The situation is tough to manage, both due to the lack of strength and his perceived fraility. He fell in the Draft because of a torn ACL that, mixed with his extremely scrawny, 6-11 frame, sparked injury concerns in front offices across the league. This summer, he's already twisted an ankle multiple times, came up limping several more, caught a case of the cramps, and only played in back-to-back games just once.
I'm not just writing this solely to be cynical. I've been a victim of falling captive to the vortex of Summer League and diving face first into a world where Daniel Orton was the second-coming of Shaquille O'Neil. It turned out the only similarity between the two was a penchant for gaining weight.
Sixers fans should be extremely excited about Nerlens in the regular season this winter. He's going to make the campaign far more exciting than a year ago, even though I do think the Sixers will earn the worst record in the league in 2014-15. But we have to be careful of how we make regular season projections based off Summer League performances. Pragmatism is key in that regard, in that he'll have his struggles against bigger competition.
"He's gotta do the little things: he's gotta box out, he's gotta understand that it is a different level and there's guys bigger and stronger and faster than what he's seen before and so he's gotta learn how to do the little things, run the floor, get to the right spots offensively, hold the right spots when he's supposed to," Iske said. "Defensively, he's gotta be up on screens, guys are too talented you can't just hang under the basket and protect it from there, he's gotta be all over the place and be a team defender."
Nerlens has a lot of things he needs to get better at, and the coaching staff recognizes this. It will be fun as hell to watch him learn how to improve in those areas this season, but he's not going to be an All-Star center right away like many are starting to tell themselves he can be this season. He may play only something like 65 games in a best-case scenario and sit out back-to-backs. He'll struggle and get pushed around by bigger competition. He will still be a rookie, even if he looks really good at times. It's all a part of the development process, and Noel still has a lot of development to do.