76ers see Nerlens Noel as a center, which creates a Joel Embiid-sized problem

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For all the talk about the 76ers tanking to get high draft picks, they have just three of the 120 top-10 picks still in the NBA:

  • Joel Embiid (No. 3 in 2014)
  • Jason Richardson (No. 5 in 2001)
  • Nerlens Noel (No. 6 in 2013)

Richardson hasn’t played in years, and he’s clearly not in the 76ers’ long-term plans. So, you’d think they’d want to get the most from Embiid and Noel.

The 6-foot-11, 228-pound Noel is in his rookie year after missing all of last season due to injury while the 7-foot, 250-pound Embiid sits out his first professional season with his own injury. It’ll be a while before we see how they fit together, but we can begin to analyze. Embiid definitely projects as a center, and Noel has swung between both big-man positions.

Can they eventually share a lineup?

Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com:

Coach Brett Brown was asked whether Noel is a better fit at power forward or center and said, “I think right now it’s a five” and that “He’s gone from being a four man playing alongside Henry Sims to a five man, which is going to be a challenge for us when Joel gets healthy next year.”

At another moment, it’s “Look at what a lot of teams do with their four men. They’re away from the basket. Most of the fours nowadays can almost shoot threes. If that’s your world, naturally you’re pulled away from the basket. That was Nerlens’ problem when we played him at four. He’s so used to just running to the rim, he’d lose Dirk (Nowitzki), he’d lose perimeter people. It wasn’t natural for him. Maybe he can guard a five player (better). I don’t know. I think it’s all a work in progress. But he really is a presence at the rim.”

And what of the eventual position conflict with Embiid, since there isn’t much appeal in taking his defense away from the rim?

“We’ll deal with it,” Brown said. “I think it’s a good problem to have and it’s not one that we’re shying away from. We still do all of our deliberate practice work with Nerlens from 18 feet. We still work on his form. Nothing really changes. It’s just with what we have right now, he’s been slid over to a five spot. We’re happy with his progress. I think it’s just something that we’ll figure out as time unfolds.”

Noel needs to add either bulk to play center or a jumper and awareness to defend on the perimeter to play power forward. I suspect bulk will come much easier for the 20-year-old.

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At best, it’ll be a while before Noel or Embiid has the skill to complement the other as a power forward. At worst, it’ll never happen, and that possibility leaves Philadelphia in a bind.

The 76ers can experiment with the talented and tall duo once Embiid gets healthy next season, and if they don’t work together, that could help Philadelphia tank for another high pick. And if bigs click better than expected, great, the 76ers would be pretty good.

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Complicating matters further, four of the top five prospects for the 2015 draft are big men, according to both ESPN and DraftExpress. A frontcourt with two ill-fitting pieces could add another if Philadelphia drafts the most valuable player available.

I suspect the 76ers are in the talent-acquisition phase of their rebuild. Add quality players and then later sort out how they fit, trading those who don’t. So, having both Embiid and Noel is no problem right now.

But if Noel’s best position is center, that speaks to how long the 76ers will delay their ascension up the standings – and what they must do to get there.