CAMDEN, N.J. — After Nerlens Noel participated in Sixers practice for the first time since undergoing elective arthroscopic knee surgery in October, there was a glaring question for the big man.
Noel had expressed at the start of training camp he didn’t believe the Sixers’ frontcourt trio of Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and himself could work. So what did he think about the situation nearly 20 games into the season?
“I don't think the roster's changed,” Noel said Thursday. “So, I don't think the roster's changed.”
It actually has. The Sixers added another big to the team last month when they traded Jerami Grant to the Thunder for starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova. The centers remain in tact, though. There have been barely enough minutes for third option Richaun Holmes let alone a fourth center, and that’s before Embiid’s minutes were increased to 28 per game.
So, no, the overload at the five spot hasn’t changed. When that will happen remains to be seen. In the meantime, Noel will continue to work toward his return from injury and getting healthy enough to play.
Noel said he had been bothered by a “little irritating pain” in his left knee all last season, in which he averaged 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 29.3 minutes per game. He believed this surgery would alleviate that discomfort and allow him to be more explosive.
Noel completed the first portion of his rehab in Birmingham, Alabama, and rejoined the team over a week ago. On Wednesday, he practiced with the Sixers’ D-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers, as part of his recovery.
The next day, Noel practiced with the Sixers. He did both live work and scripting, which Brett Brown described as “nothing competitive” with mostly five-on-none activity. Noel was monitored in accordance with the team’s load-management plan.
“I think I'm getting pretty close,” Noel said. “Right now my body is telling me get back to everyday basketball and the little kinks and soreness, I'll just pass right through. So now it's just getting in shape, getting my rhythm back and my wind up.”
Brown isn’t going to rush Noel back onto the court. Just because he practiced on Thursday doesn’t mean his return is in the immediate future. The Sixers have been demonstrating caution this season with their injured players, including minute restrictions once they are cleared.
“I think Nerlens is still a ways away,” Brown said. “To quantify that in relation to days or weeks, I can’t do that. But I don’t see it in the foreseeable future. The next four, five games, I can’t see it.”
Brown is tasked with two elements with Noel’s recovery. One is the on-the-court side of it, determining how to utilize Noel within the current system. Brown has said every player will have to earn their minutes.
The other is the off-the-court factor, keeping the team focused as a unit in spite of Noel’s candid viewpoint on the roster makeup.
“I feel like he likes being around his teammates. His teammates like being around him,” Brown said. “Everybody understands that’s a little bit awkward. Everybody understands that there is some level of a logjam at a position. We all get it, we all talk freely about it. So there’s no elephant in the room as it relates to any of that type of stuff. Him just coming back and saying hello to teammates and interacting with friends was very natural today. I bet if you asked him, he would have enjoyed an experience he just hasn't had in awhile.”
Said Noel: “It feels comfortable. I think I've established myself in this organization, so when I come in it's coming to play basketball.”
Noel is in his fourth season with the Sixers (including his rookie year in which he did not play because of an ACL injury). Even though Noel is one of the longest-tenured members, Brown is placing an emphasis on a “classroom” setting to help him study up on the current state of the team. Noel said he got a sense of the team in training camp and knows his teammates’ games “pretty well.” He noted he will have to learn more about the new plays and sets.
“He’s got a whole new set of teammates,” Brown said. “The point of emphasis in the past is completely different as it relates to our post spacing with Jo and Jah and what we’re doing around it. How does he treat Gerald Henderson, how does he play with Dario (Saric) and Ersan, what happens with Jerryd (Bayless) comes back in? I don’t even know where to begin, it’s completely different. There’s lots to learn.”
Noel didn’t seem concerned that he wouldn’t fit back in with the team after being away for the start of the season. He envisions his role as simply “being Nerlens Noel.” What exactly that will entail will unfold this season.
“I put myself in a different place with all these things,” Noel said. “Do what you can control. That's what I give power to, is what I can really control. I think right now I'm in a good place mentally, I think my body feels great and I just want to get back to playing basketball and let things take care of themselves.”