In year two of the Sixers major rebuilding project, we're once again left yelling about the Rookie of The Year award race. Last season, it was Michael Carter-Williams fending off competitiors on marginally better teams and bit-part players like Mason Plumlee. This year, the script has flipped, and it appears Nerlens Noel will be the man on the outside looking in.
Should you care? I don't think so, and unlike last season it doesn't feel like Noel or the franchise need the validation that comes with having the league's "top" rookie. As Roy explored in his piece, he does not fit the profile of your typical ROY winner -- that's okay.
The natural instinct is to lump together the 2013-14 and 2014-15 campaigns into one Hinkie-sized basket. After all, they're both small steps in the architect's grand plan to turn the Sixers into a contender. But there's a distinct difference between last year, which was halfway spent clearing the decks of inconsequential veterans.
Painful as the 0-17 start was, this season has been about youth and opportunity. The Sixers had it all: surprising breakouts from Jerami Grant and Robert Covington, JaKarr Sampson's positional shape-shifting and the evolution of Hollis Thompson's shot release. There were no Evan Turner baseline fades to temper enthusiasm.
Noel is the figurehead of the movement, a defensive ace who had miles to travel offensively slowly rounding into a two-way player. He has not just crashed through the rookie wall with his surge post All Star, Nerlens has defied the age old maxim that big men are on a steeper development curve than wings and guards. There are arguments to be made about whose season is "better" between he and Andrew Wiggins, but in terms of raw improvement Noel is the clear standout.
That is the most important component of this season for Noel and the franchise alike. Brett Brown consistently talks about "moving the program forward", and Noel progressing from Mr. Brick Hands to threat on pick-and-roll dives oozes the heart of Coach Brown's sentiment. MCW's rookie season ended with hardware but his path was decidedly different, gate-crashing in style and fizzling out as the role and campaign took their toll on him.
Carter-Williams winning ROY honors was the light at the end of the tunnel, a small reward for sitting through a bushel of apathetic efforts from Spencer Hawes. Noel winning it this season would be nice, but this year doesn't feel as though it needs arbitrary validation from the peanut gallery. You can point to any number of successes -- a burgeoning defense, aforementioned player development and Brett Brown's ability to work with swarms of incoming newbies -- as proof that the franchise may be on to something.
Noel is emblematic of many of the Sixers triumphs in player development. Increased responsibility didn't weigh on him, it brought out his best. The MCW trade looked like a wrench in the machinery for his development, until they actually played the games and he took to the increased reps gracefully. (Or at least as gracefully as his gangling frame allows)
Unlike when Carter-Williams' production was a constant subject of debate, Noel's rise has been lauded by all sects of Sixers fans, and his place in the team's plan feels agreed upon. There was a tangible uncertainty when discussing MCW's future that doesn't exist for Noel. He's a string bean, but his primary function is making life a living hell for opponents on the defensive end, and his lack of fear challenging would-be dunkers taps into Philadelphia's tough, blue-collar persona.
To that end, I've been selfishly hoping that Noel doesn't win Rookie of The Year. Not because I don't think he's earned it and not because I prefer the other candidates, but because I believe he is the type of guy that would use that as fuel for future success.
Think of how he's reacted to slights this season. When Anthony Davis took the night off against the Sixers in January, Noel responded by commenting that teams better bring "full forces" to Philadelphia. When Eric Bledsoe suggested Kentucky would win a series against Philly, Noel welcomed the Suns guard to his city with a nice love tap:
Nerlens Noel fights, whether out of personal pride or respect for what it means to represent a historic franchise. There have been nights when he hardly shows up in the box score, and defensive montages are an admittedly unsexy thing to include in highlight montages.
But it's clear from his attitude, his progress and his ever-growing production that Noel will be a guy Sixers fans and executives should feel comfortable going to war with. And no piece of hardware is necessary to determine that.