The ever-divisive ongoing rebuild in Philadelphia has, for better or worse, shined an unbalanced light on a few of the specific participants – whether willing or otherwise. Many people were involved in some way with the 76ers’ decision to undergo an intentional tanking project never before seen to this magnitude in North American professional sports, but the spotlight has generally featured only a small percentage of those mixed up in what’s been, at times, a painful ordeal.
From a player perspective, particularly during a 2015-16 season that threatened all-time levels of futility early in the year, the two main outlets for fan and media frustration have been blue chip big men Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. With fellow college standout Joel Embiid still on the sidelines and out of the spotlight, potential Euro transplant Dario Saric toiling half a world away and the rest of Philly’s roster inhabited mostly by placeholders and journeymen, Noel and Okafor are on the front lines daily.
“We have to deal with it,” Noel told Basketball Insiders during All-Star weekend in Toronto. “We are patient. Things are getting better – guys are coming along, and we’re starting to play at a higher level.”
He’s right, and the distinction between the run-of-the-mill bad we’ve seen from Philly in the last month or two and the historically awful product on the floor in the season’s early months is hugely relevant. Consider that at one point they were an almost unbelievable 1-30 after a late December loss to Milwaukee – on pace to shatter the NBA record for futility with three or fewer wins for a full season. Discontent was growing and became focused on all the wrong areas to an even larger degree when Okafor’s public behavioral issues became a major talking point as well. Real whispers had begun to spread as to whether Philly’s culture was permanently damaging these players. Through it all, Noel and Okafor remained the most visible on-court faces.
Things aren’t quite so dire after a couple of personnel fixes and the hiring of Jerry Colangelo stabilized the franchise to a degree. As it turns out, going about your daily work isn’t quite as difficult minus questions about playing on the worst professional sports team of all-time at the end of each game. From Noel’s eye, the group’s camaraderie has grown to a point where they lift each other.
“It doesn’t wear on the team, because we’re such a close-knit team,” Noel said. “We’re all around the same age, a lot of common interests. So guys are really close in that regard, and Coach [Brett] Brown does a great job of keeping the locker room so close.”
In addition to being the most visible faces on the floor, the on-court dynamic between the two young bigs has brightened the spotlight they face. Noel and Okafor have frequently struggled as a frontcourt pairing to an even larger degree than the 76ers as whole, and have generally seen team performance improve when they play separately. For a franchise hoping they can make up two thirds of a dominant NBA front line, it’s certainly concerning.
“I wouldn’t say we’re struggling because of Nerlens and [me],” Okafor told Basketball Insiders “We’re just a young team. We have a lot to figure out. But Nerlens and I can definitely coexist.”
Whether his latter statement eventually becomes true or not, the numbers don’t currently back up his first proclamation. In 608 minutes together so far this year, the Noel-Okafor pairing has been outscored by a frightening 19.3 points per-100-possessions, the third-worst mark of any two-man unit with over 500 logged minutes. Only two other Philly duos (Okafor-Stauskas and Okafor-Grant) have been worse, and only a couple other duos in the entire league have even come within shouting distance of their futility.
Meanwhile, though, when Okafor plays without Noel, the number drops to a minus-13.1 – still terrible, but a step up. And when Noel plays without the 2015 third overall pick, the 76ers even approach respectable, outscored by just 5.2 points per-100, a figure that would “only” be 27th in the NBA on a team level for the full season.
The figures are concerning, but like many elements of Philly’s season, things have improved as the year has worn on. Brown has split the two up a bit more often to mitigate the damage to some degree, and the insertion of mid-season addition Ish Smith at the point guard spot has really appeared to stabilize both players. The Noel-Okafor twosome is down into the single digits for red numbers since Smith’s first game in Philly on December 26, outscored by a more manageable 8.7 points per-100 in that time. Okafor-only lineups continue to be a bit worrisome, but the franchise has plenty of time to be patient with their youngest asset as things improve elsewhere. Noel thinks Jahlil is already making strides.
“He’s matured so much, and developed his game in such a short period of time,” Noel said of Okafor. “Our relationship growing as much as it has since the season started, and us being able to work through so many things, just go through so many things together so early and at a young age… it’s really helped us.
“I think me and Jah are so young, where we’re still figuring out a lot of things about the NBA game. We’re still growing our game and developing. As the season grows, we’ll get more comfortable in building certain parts of our game that will make it easier to play together. So I think it’s just a matter of time.”
As the two grow together and show what they can accomplish when surrounded by actual NBA talent, the focus of the franchise can slowly begin to shift. A much more positive stretch since Smith and Colangelo’s additions has removed the lingering stench of a historically awful team – shoot, the 76ers might even have competition for the league’s worst record this season if they keep it up. Eyes can start turning to the next steps in the process.
“We have a bright future,” said Okafor. “We have a lot of things to look forward to – JoJo Embiid coming back, Dario Saric coming back over here. Hopefully that happens.”
He didn’t even mention the team’s 2016 draft stockpile (Noel did), which is sizable. The 76ers could have as many as three lottery picks and four first-rounders overall in this draft, including their own pick that projects to once again be in the top three. Saric’s transplant date is unknown at this point, but continued bits of positivity out of Philly certainly can’t hurt the chances that he makes the jump before long. And of course, as likely the highest-ceiling prospect the team has selected during their rebuild, Embiid’s likely return could make a world of difference.
“Joel’s been doing fantastic,” Noel said. “He’s come leaps and bounds. His body looks amazing, he’s really been on top of his medicine, the whole nine. Getting to the arena early, taking care of his rehab and his treatment, he looks real good.”
It’s been a long road for two of Philly’s most promising young pieces, but as the team looks to have finally turned one small corner, they’re hoping creases will begin to open up more often. Colangelo’s hiring signals a clear desire to begin the process of moving forward, and the next couple years are sure to offer countless exciting, revelatory moments as the young core grows both in number and in experience. For now, the two youngsters will enjoy the scenery in Toronto, knowing their time as the featured attractions at All-Star weekend can’t be far away.
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