CAMDEN, N.J. -- Can three potential starting centers fit on one team? The Sixers are about to find out.
The bigs finally are back together. Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor all have been cleared to play, Noel being the last one to make his season debut on Sunday.
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Last season, the Sixers faced challenges playing just Noel and Okafor together, but now are confident they can have success with all three healthy.
“I really look forward to this,” Brett Brown said Tuesday after practice. “We are at a stage where our program is one that is still very much in the experimentation phases.”
Brown sees pairing options that give him optimism for them to share the court. It’s no longer just decided who should play the four or the five. It’s how they can be utilized together to maximize their abilities.
While they play the same position, they bring different skill sets to the court, from spacing to offense to athleticism to rim protection. As Embiid summed it up, "We all do special things on the floor."
The Sixers can hone in on each of their strengths to create combinations, which may also include starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova, that counter different matchups.
“I still think that Nerlens and Jahlil will be a work in progress,” Brown said. “I think that the pairings of Nerlens and Ersan or Nerlens and Joel, because of his ability to stretch the floor, might be more palatable initially. There are pairings that you think have a better chance of working given their skill package, and that’s on my mind ... If we do want to grow our program, and we do defensively, and you say you better be a good rim-protecting team, that in Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel, that’s a pretty good place to start.”
The players are ready for the new looks that will come their way. On Tuesday, Embiid, the Sixers’ starting center, practiced at power forward. Shifting positions would change his location on the floor, but Embiid also wants to maintain his inside-outside game at the four spot. He is shooting 44.2 percent from three and 54.1 percent less than five feet from the basket.
“I was more of a four today offensively and defensively. I think going forward that’s how it’s going to play out,” Embiid said, later adding, “I think I’ll be more of a spacer (at power forward). When Nerlens sets pick-and-rolls, I’ll be more of a stretch four I think. I’m going to try to do both -- post up, play outside. It’s about not helping myself but helping the team win, so I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Noel and Okafor are familiar with the task of changing roles. Last season, they were shifted in and out of their natural center position. Okafor started 45 games at center and three at forward while Noel had 28 starts at center and 34 at forward. Both believe they will be better suited as a duo because the group around them has improved.
“I think we have a more balanced team, more talent across the board that can know how to move the ball more and know how to play basketball, just period,” Noel said. “I think Joel, as well, being a pick-and-pop-type-style player, he can spread the floor out a little bit … Sergio (Rodriguez) as well, with the new addition, and just playing more fluid in transition basketball.”
Okafor echoed, “I think we’re just a better team overall than we were last year. We’ve added some really good pieces and certain individuals have gotten better. I think it’ll be a better mix.”
However the combinations shake out, Embiid, Noel and Okafor are eager to play together in numerous designs. Through the ups and downs of determining how to best utilize the bigs, they have remained steadfast that their friendships off the court will translate into the game.
“Those are my dawgs, regardless," Noel said. "I don’t really care about all the politics too much. I love my guys. We come in, we treat each other like brothers every day.”
The Sixers most likely will have to wait to play the trio. Noel is listed as questionable for Wednesday against the Raptors because of a sprained ankle he suffered on Sunday. Based on his workload at practice on Tuesday, Noel projected he would "probably not" play.