Noel's debut for Sixers? Don't hold your breath

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Nerlens Noel watches win over Bobcats.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Nerlens Noel watches win over Bobcats.
Posted: January 17, 2014

LAST YEAR at about this time, Doug Collins had had it up to his kind eyes with conjecture about the health of his rehabbing big man. Andrew Bynum would tell us that he might play next week, or next month, and then he would come to practice, and then he wouldn't. Doug was asked daily, weekly, monthly, and Doug would answer daily, weekly, monthly, until finally one day Doug told reporters: "You should talk to him. I don't want to be the messenger because they shoot messengers."

Brett Brown seems to be at that point when discussing Nerlens Noel. The dynamic, though, couldn't be more different. Last year, Collins wanted Bynum on the floor yesterday, last week, last month, RIGHT NOW!! Brown, though, continues to sound like an overprotective parent, practically wincing each time some sunny prediction is issued about the timing of the debut of the Sixers' 19-year-old who was a first-round pick out of Kentucky, as it was yesterday.

A source close to Dr. James Andrews told ESPN that the physician believes Noel will be ready to play in 4 to 6 weeks following a checkup performed last week.

Yippee, right? No, not yippee, at least not to Brown. A player-development guy, Brown has a golden opportunity to teach, mold and correct the impressionable teen from suburban Boston, thanks to Noels' long rehabilitation from that anterior cruciate ligament tear.

"I have a soft spot for him," Brown said. "I really take to him. Some of it is because he's so, in my opinion, endearing; and he's from Boston, and there are roots that he and I have; and I'm fascinated by his talent potential. And so, you build those types of relationships, and then he starts to be able to shadow one-on-one with someone like Greg Foster, and you look and you see some things and I run upstairs and watch the Maryland-Kentucky game at the Barclays Center [November 2012] and start digging in a little more and you start seeing what can happen.

"At age 19, he's got an awful lot to offer, an awful lot to give, and personally I can't wait to coach him."

Well, yes, he can. He leaves you with the distinct feeling he could wait till next year. And he really doesn't hide that well. Scolded by Sixers brass in October when he stated his belief that Noel would not play at all this season, Brown this time was more careful as he attempted to add weeks, if not months, to Andrews' reported timeline.

"I was sent to media training school after one of my things," Brown said with a smile. "But I'm back from media training and mowing along."

So what he said was this: Noel's one-on-one session with player-development coach Foster earlier this week was practically choreographed, devoid of any semblance of physicality. "Shadow one-on-one," he called it. And while the drills have become more challenging of late, "We're not going to just recklessly put him on a stage and expect results."

"It's unfair," Brown said. "To think that you're going to go from one-handed shooting to guarding Tim Duncan in a 6-week period is kind of ambitious. So I think as it plays out, if it's possible, we'll get him out on the court. Provided it's in the club's best interest and his best interests and that he clicks all the appropriate health boxes."

The club's best interest does not appear to be a 4-to-6-week time frame. The club's best interest is possibly some limited minutes late in a season that was expected to be, almost designed to be, knee-deep in muck - until most of the other Eastern Conference teams conspired to mix that muck into its playoff picture.

With a 95-92 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats last night, the 13-win Sixers remain on the cusp of the final playoff spot with more than half the season left to play. Could Noels affect that dynamic 6 weeks from now? In the perverse world that is the NBA, it is the franchise's nightmare scenario.

So as much as Brown wants to, in his words, "Keep everybody in the loop and keep it wide-open and very transparent," the official position on the return of Noel goes like this:

"At this stage, it's just only fair to say that he's doing well."

Or, as Sixers president and general manager Sam Hinkie said in a statement: "Our goal remains the same, which is to give Nerlens every opportunity to ensure a long, productive career."

And that means playing doctor even more than a real doctor would. Small steps of improvement, boxes to check, protecting last year's high-risk, high-reward draft-night acquisition like that overprotective parent.

"He wants to jump, he wants to dunk, and it's good," Brown said. "To see what's going on and to see where we're at, I'm thrilled he thinks like he thinks. He wants to be out there. But he understands, too, there's a timeline. It's cruel to throw him on an NBA stage and expect tremendous results if it's not handled appropriately, if it's not handled intelligently."


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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