For as painful as the start was for Nerlens Noel, he had a rookie season filled with dazzling and encouraging moments. He met James Harden at the summit, got his first game-winning bucket and shrugged off the always looming "rookie wall". It's going to be fun to watch his ascent after dramatic improvement in just one season.
But if we're picking favorites, the moment that stands out to me is really not much of a basketball play at all. It was the night Noel decided he'd had enough of outsiders disparaging his team:
For those who don't remember, Eric Bledsoe was asked on SiriusXM how his alma mater would fare against Philadelphia, responding that he thought the Kentucky Wildcats would win a seven-game series. "I think Philly would probably get maybe one game," Bledsoe claimed.
Response from the Sixers centerpiece came within the week. On Bledsoe's first trip into the painted area less than 30 seconds in, Noel sent him crashing to the floor. As is custom with NBA dustups, they stood chest-to-chest yapping at each other for a brief time, with Noel ultimately picking up a flagrant foul for his efforts.
I'm not an advocate of dirty play or hoping that the Sixers morph into the modern version of the Bad Boys Pistons, but this was a pivotal moment and representation of the season and the rebuild.
The "losing habits" trope constantly used to defame the Sixers is overdone, but not without some merit. I tend to believe that 99 percent of all professional athletes needed a "winning mentality" and extreme belief in self to get to where they're at, but everyone reacts to dire circumstances differently. Some people take the pain of struggle and use it an opportunity for growth, while others are swallowed whole by things outside their control. Sitting at 0-11 entering the Suns game and catching flak from peers, fans and media members alike, the possibility was there for this year to go totally off the rails. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit worried, despite belief in the process.
Noel combating vocal mockery of his boys, his team and the franchise he represents squashed those fleeting feelings of doubt. It was the a-ha! moment before we had an understanding of how hard this team would fight on a nightly basis. Over time, this is the attitude I came to expect from Noel and his teammates, but at this point we were only a week removed from watching Dallas lay an inhumane beatdown on the Sixers.
It takes a certain wiring to continue to bring the effort the Sixers did throughout this season. Part of that speaks to the level of players they went after -- many were fighting for their NBA lives -- but it was spearheaded by Noel, a player who Brown needled early and often about needing to possess a "motor".
For better or worse, Noel took ownership of the rebuild, and it trickled down from the big man to his 'mates far beyond what we saw game-to-game. Jerami Grant and JaKarr Sampson were referred to as Thing One and Thing Two by Malik Rose for their constant presence in team facilities. Players like K.J. McDaniels, clearly unhappy with the situation in Philadelphia, were eventually moved out in search of people who would buy what Brown and Co. were selling. Even Joel Embiid, the assumed crown jewel of the franchise, was pretty transparently sent a message for failing to live up to the expectations of his mentors. There was no room for anyone not willing to put in the work and take personal responsibility for individual and team growth.
Noel's hard foul on Bledsoe was symbolic of that mentality. There are moments that were more important in the grand scheme of things, but none represent this rag-tag bunch like the image of him swiping at Bledsoe, unwilling to put up with his trash talk. That pride will serve Noel and the Sixers well as they attempt to build this thing from the ground up.