If you arrived early at Target Center before Wednesday’s Timberwolves-Philadelphia game, you saw what very few others will see this season:
Lottery pick Nerlens Noel in action.
Once considered a No. 1 overall pick last summer, Noel dropped to sixth on draft night because of concerns over his raw offensive game and a surgically repaired knee. The 76ers made a deal with New Orleans that sent All-Star guard Jrue Holiday away in a package to obtain that pick and his rights.
Now, nine months after he underwent ACL surgery, Noel has been shelved for the entire season so new coach Brett Brown can rebuild his game from the sneakers up while the Sixers pursue other important matters, such as losing enough games to get a high pick in next summer’s loaded draft.
You could have seen Brown — an assistant coach for player development-minded San Antonio for more than a decade before the Sixers hired him last summer — working with Noel at Target Center two hours before Wednesday’s game, as he does for about 20 minutes with the former Kentucky star before every game.
Brown calls his work on the 6-11 defensive center’s shot a “total rebuild” that will take all season with a 19-year-old prospect who played just one injury-shortened collegiate season.
The kid can block shots. Now if he could only shoot.
“We said from the very beginning it’s an opportunity, and one that I hope he never has again,” Brown said. “How often do you do get an opportunity like that in a season? It’s like a building. If the building’s base is poor … There are a lot of mistakes going on above his knees.”
So Brown works with Noel daily on footwork and that base before they move up to his guiding hand and release point. Noel won’t be allowed until after Christmas to bring his left guide hand to the ball because Brown says it “screws up” his shot.
“It’s not a finger here or a toe there, it’s a total makeover,” Brown said. “I’m thrilled with where he’s at. It’s a far more fluid shot. The carry-over in this year’s benefit will be significant if we can really get it right for his future.”
And the future is what Noel’s draft selection and the Sixers are all about.
They traded away an All-Star point guard for the pick they used to choose Noel as well as New Orleans’ top-five-protected pick in next summer’s draft. Then they used their own pick to take Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who despite a foot injury and knee infection already has established himself as a favorite for Rookie of the Year while Noel works daily and sits nightly on the Sixers’ bench.
“He’s like a player who doesn’t play,” Brown said of Noel. “I want him to hear my words. I want him in team meetings where it’s happy, it’s sad, it’s real. I like asking him questions in games. We reach out all over the place to engage him so it’s not like he’s a one-handed shooter and that’s the last we see of him. He really is used like he’s a player.”
Blazing newer trails
Don’t look now, but guess who’s coming to Target Center this week with the West’s best record, second only to Indiana in the NBA?
That’s right, the 19-4 Portland Trail Blazers, who play the Timberwolves on Wednesday.
Fans were chanting “MVP, MVP” at the arena formerly known as the Rose Garden on Thursday night when Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge willed his team to victory over Houston with a 31-point, 25-rebound night. Those 25 rebounds were a career high and helped him trump Rockets star Dwight Howard’s 32-point, 17-rebound game.
Already this month, Aldridge has pushed the three-point-loving Blazers to home victories over Paul George and Indiana and Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City.
“He’s just growing,” teammate Wesley Matthews recently told reporters. “He’s just getting better.”
Mark it down
Sunday is Dec. 15, the day all players who signed free-agent contracts last summer can be traded.
A heavyweight fight
Apparently, getting ready to play big, physical Wolves center Nikola Pekovic takes a certain mind-set.
Here’s what Miami’s Chris Bosh said before facing big Pek one day earlier this month: “I’m confident: I lifted weights yesterday, did a couple push-ups and watched ‘Rocky,’ so I feel good.”