While watching the 76ers last Wednesday one thing came to mind: Nerlens Noel plays really good basketball at center. Noel played his best game of the season. He finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block in 28 minutes. Jahlil Okafor has missed four games since the 76ers acquired Ish Smith. In those four games Philadelphia won twice, but held a lead in the fourth quarter every game. Noel averaged 16.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 2.3 steals on 82 percent shooting in those games.
It makes sense why Noel’s numbers look that good at center. Without Okafor inside, Noel can operate around and above the rim. The other reason why Noel’s numbers look that good: Philadelphia’s starting point guard. Smith finds Noel for a dunk at least twice a game. Smith’s penetration draws help defenders allowing Noel to get open. It’s amazing what a point guard can do for a team, specifically two young big men. Noel shot 63.2 percent from the restricted area before Dec. 26. Since Dec. 26, Smith’s debut, Noel’s made 76.5 percent of his restricted area attempts, according to NBA.com. That percentage ties DeAndre Jordan for best in the NBA during that span for players with more than 90 attempts. Not only did Noel improve inside his mid-range shooting percentage rose from 21.2 pre-Smith to 36.8 post-Smith.
Noel also showcased his passing ability in last Wednesday’s loss to Detroit. Noel’s always been a good passer. He’s not afraid to hit the backdoor cutter, or make any tough pass. Noel’s offensive skill set shines brighter when he’s at center, too. With the aforementioned extra space without Okafor, Noel can pick his spots inside and out. He made a key mid-range jumper late in the fourth quarter in last week’s win against Phoenix. Noel and Smith create a lethal pick-and-roll, which head coach Brett Brown goes to in key situations. Noel’s quicker than nearly every center he faces, which causes mismatches similar to the one last week against first-time All-Star Andre Drummond. Drummond finished with 18 rebounds, but several of them came with Noel on the bench since Drummond played seven more minutes than Noel.
The 76ers have so many decisions regarding their roster the next couple years. No decision has to be made before this year’s trade deadline, especially since Joel Embiid remains an unknown. In the near future, however, one of the big men has to be dealt. Many questions will be answered by then. The first, and most important, is Embiid healthy. If that answer is yes, the 76ers should deal Okafor. Embiid has demonstrated an outside shot in every highlight the public sees before games and practices. His ability to stretch the floor makes teaming up with Noel look like the best possible pairing. Noel has all the intangibles on defense. He plays hard, shows active hands in passing lanes, demonstrates quickness to cover several positions and ranks near the top in block shots.