We hear it all the time: Nobody in the NBA is truly untradable. This logic applies to the Sam Hinkie-led Philadelphia 76ers more than any other team in professional sports.
It's conceivable to imagine a scenario where Nerlens Noel is on a different team one year from today, but he's as "untradable" as any player to wear a Sixers jersey since the Hinkie era began. After sitting out last season with a torn ACL, the 20-year-old has spent the first 50 games of his career exacerbating the world's worst offense while flashing the characteristics of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate on the other end.
The Sixers would really love it if Noel eventually became Kevin Garnett 2.0 -- a defensive maniac who packs a reliable mid-range jumper in his back pocket -- but the more realistic model is DeAndre Jordan: a shot-blocking Godzilla who dives on pick-and-rolls, lives above the rim, gobbles up every rebound in sight, sets solid screens and anchors an above-average defense (Noel is a 56.5 percent free-throw shooter, which is one part of his game where emulating Jordan isn't a good idea).
Thus far, Noel is two-faced, a raw seven-footer who glimmers on one side of the ball while still searching for any semblance of legitimacy on the other. He can't shoot, dribble or pass, so let's start the analysis right there.
Before putting any blame on Noel, it must be mentioned that he's playing on a team with no point guards capable of creating easy looks -- confidence-boosting lobs or simple catch-and-dunk opportunities from dump-off passes normally afforded to centers who played beside Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo. Just because he sprints the floor does not mean he gets to touch the ball, and that's discouraging. But, alas, this is life growing up on the Sixers. Things hopefully won't always be this way, and they better not for Noel's sake because, despite his age, imagining a future where he can score on his own is very tough to do.
ESPN's Real Plus-Minus stat lists Noel as the worst offensive center in the league. He's shooting 44.7 percent from the floor with a PER that's below league average. (Noel's turnover percentage exceeds his usage percentage by 2.1 percent.)
On one hand, most of these stats are terrible because Philadelphia sort of wants them to be. Noel's leash is never-ending. He isn't benched for bad shots (aka every shot he takes). Time will tell if the strategy proves worthwhile, but, on purpose or not, the results have been a disaster. He has no touch, yet has attempted 178 shots beyond five feet from the rim, making only 30 percent of them.
Things don't get better with his back to the basket. Noel is in the 10th percentile as a post-up scorer, averaging a measly 0.59 points per possession and shooting just 31.9 percent. He's an antsy, frantic player with the ball in his hands. Against the Orlando Magic on Sunday, he found himself 10 feet from the basket being guarded by rookie point guard Elfrid Payton. Noel fell over.
Beyond the inefficient stats, he generally looks like he doesn't know what he's doing or where he's supposed to be. On most possessions he'll run to the rim, raise his arm to call for an alley-oop, not get an alley-oop, then sadly drift to the baseline.
He doesn't set consistent screens on or off the ball, messing up the offense's timing and mucking up an attack that could really use less muck. Philadelphia scores 89.8 points per 100 possessions with Noel on the floor. For reference, the 29th best offense in basketball belongs to the Charlotte Hornets, and they score 97.5 points per 100 possessions.
Noel doesn't really do anything well on offense, but he's active and athletic. He's also young. Who knows what his jump shot will look like when he's 25? But the good news is we're already beginning to see a serious impact on defense.
According to Basketball-Reference, Noel ranks third in defensive box plus/minus (a stat that relies on a player's box score information and the team's overall performance to estimate a player's performance relative to league average). If he keeps up his current pace, Noel will finish as one of just nine players in league history, age 20 or under, to finish with a block percentage above 5.0. Right now only six players are higher than his 5.1 percent.
Yes, blocking shots is something Noel's shown he can do. He's also already one of the game's best rim protectors. According to SportVU, opponents shoot 46.1 percent at the rim when he's nearby. That compares favorably to Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and Anthony Davis. He's a monster down there, and doesn't foul as much as you'd expect for a player who's yet to log 2,000 minutes in his entire career.
There's real potential for Noel to one day evolve into the dominant defensive anchor general managers have salivated over since the dawn of man -- his wingspan is longer than average -- but right now he's too frail to bang against the league's beefy centers.
Noel works like a madman to deny entry passes into the post. He's effective either sticking one long arm in front of his man's chest to prevent an easy target, or continuously fighting to front (which the Sixers do more than just about anyone), forcing a pass elsewhere.
Once his man catches it there's very little Noel can do to stop him. He's in the 27th percentile as a post-up defender, per Synergy. Sometimes Noel's good intentions turn into desperate lunges at the ball. He gambles down there, knowing he isn't strong/smart enough to routinely slow down most of the league's low-post scorers.
Despite the numerous blemishes scattered throughout his scouting report, players like Noel -- young, athletic, huge -- don't come around every year. If he can maximize what he's already good at while eliminating the cringe-worthy parts of his game, Noel can be special. He's a potential cornerstone, the possible missing piece several rebuilding teams would gladly take off Philadelphia's hands. Hopefully, Sam Hinkie will hang up on any GM that tries.