The Sixers became a bit of a running punchline for several reasons during The Process. One of them was the overabundance of young centers on the roster.
They acquired Nerlens Noel after a draft night trade in 2013. They selected Joel Embiid third overall in 2014. In 2015, they took Jahlil Okafor with the third pick. It left the team and all three players in a funky spot.
As we all know, Embiid has become a perennial MVP candidate, Okafor is out of the NBA and Noel is playing in a deep reserve role for Detroit. On Tuesday we got to see Embiid and Noel, who became great friends during their time with the Sixers, square off.
Noel was glad to catch up with his buddy, but equally as ready to wrestle with Embiid down low.
“I don’t know him when we’re on the court,” Noel joked pregame. “Nah, we’re gonna chop it up. But we gotta hoop. And that’ll be that.”
There weren’t many fun moments for Noel’s squad as the young and decimated Pistons were crushed by the Sixers. Early on, Noel gave Embiid, who was returning from a three-game absence with left foot soreness, a hard time.
Much to the chagrin of the five-time All-Star.
“It was good. That’s my guy,” Embiid said postgame. “Obviously a lot of good years with him. It’s good playing against him. He got me a few times with him reaching so I was kind of pissed about it because that’s really all he does defensively. But I’m just glad to see him get minutes. I think he still deserves to get a lot of minutes nightly.”
It’s been a weird season for Noel. Tuesday’s start was a rare opportunity for extended playing time.
He was traded by the Knicks to the Pistons along with another former Sixer in Alec Burks in a cost-cutting move for New York’s impending signing of Jalen Brunson. The trouble there is the Pistons have invested two recent in draft picks in big men. Isaiah Stewart (16th overall in 2020) and Roman Catholic product Jalen Duren (13th overall in 2022) are being groomed for big roles in Detroit’s future.
What is it with Noel getting stuck in center logjams?
Both Stewart and Duren missed Tuesday’s game, pressing Noel into action.
“He hasn’t had a lot opportunities,” Pistons head coach Dwane Casey said pregame. “I trust the fact of having him in the game, but our year this year is about growing Jalen and also Isaiah at the five spot, unfortunately for [Noel]. But he was told when he we traded for him that was going to be his role. And he’s handled it like a pro.”
The final year (2023-24) of the three-year deal Noel inked with the Knicks is a club option. That means he’s essentially on an expiring contract. With the trade deadline approaching, Noel could be an attractive option for a team in need of a rim-running center.
While the Sixers would be an interesting landing spot for the now 10-year veteran, a reunion doesn’t seem likely. Noel’s $9.2 million cap hit could be prohibitive for a potential trade with the Sixers.
It would certainly be a time-is-a-flat-circle moment.
“Philadelphia is like a second home to me,” Noel said. “I got a lot of memories here, a lot of relationships — Joel, especially. Having him come in and helping him learn a couple of early on things when he was a rookie, me being a year or two older. I took a lot of pride in that and helping him build the foundation that he has today. He’s a great player. Hall of Fame future.”
While he doesn’t regret the way things transpired with the organization — as unceremonious as it might have been — he’s happy to see the Philadelphia 76ers doing well.
“I had my own path and my own journey,” Noel said, “and everything here that is coming to success, I genuinely am happy for everybody here. From Joel to ... I’m proud of Sam Hinkie, what he was able to start. He doesn’t get enough credit for it.”
Evidently, Nerlens Noel will always Trust the Process.