NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel is proving his value to the suddenly successful Sixers

The Sixers are 12-9 since Noel returned and 2-0 in the last two games, without Embiid or Okafor.

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The Sixers won on Wednesday night, beating Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greg Monroe and the Milwaukee Bucks 114-109 led, in part, on the strength of 16 points and 13 rebounds from Nerlens Noel. Noel and Richaun Holmes combined for 25 points and 21 rebounds in 48 minutes at center, spelling the injured Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor one night after the backup duo combined for 37 points in a win over the DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and the Clippers.

After Wednesday’s game, Noel talked about his jumper — yes, a bona fide game-sealing jump shot — that helped secure the team’s fifth win in six games.

We’ve made a lot of noise about Embiid being the savior of Philadelphia basketball and rightfully so, both on and off the court. But with Embiid resting an extra game after suffering a knee injury late last week, and Okafor missing his opportunity for minutes in Embiid’s absence, Noel has stepped up to show his value to the Sixers.

Embiid may call himself The Process, but it’s becoming clear that Nerlens Noel would like a word. This season, Embiid has gotten national (and local) credit for being the driving force behind turning the Sixers around — again, rightfully so — but Noel’s return to the lineup may have been the catalyst to turn this process into actual on-court progress.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Milwaukee Bucks
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Noel had, to say the least, a rough start to the season. In late October, just as the 2016-17 campaign was beginning, Noel had what the Sixers called “elective surgery” to repair inflamed tissue above his left knee. He then chose to rehab in Alabama, not at the Sixers brand-new state-of-the-art basketball training facility in Camden. Noel was upset about the “logjam” at center — Embiid, Okafor and even Richaun Holmes sharing minutes with him at the same position — so he took his ball (read: injured knee) and went home (read: to Alabama).

The Sixers weren’t happy. Brett Brown said as much when Noel returned, that he wasn’t here with the team as they found their footing with Embiid. Noel wasn’t around when Brown figured out not only his rotation, but the style the Sixers were going to play now.

Things got worse before they got better. After Noel’s season debut — a 10-minute first-half appearance in a December 12th win against Detroit in which he got hurt and never returned — he elected to sit out the team’s next game. Then came the debacle against the Lakers, and it looked like Noel’s time with the Sixers was all but over.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Noel publicly ripped Brett Brown for only giving him eight minutes in a December 16th loss to L.A., which led to Brown responding by officially benching him, telling the press Noel wouldn’t get regular rotation minutes unless Embiid or Okafor were out or in foul trouble. Noel, Brown said, would have to earn back his minutes with solid play in practice, a better attitude, and a belief in what the team is doing around him.

Just a month later, it sure looks like he believes now, and it certainly seems like Brown believes in him.

Noel played 57 combined minutes in the back-to-back wins this week, setting a season-high in points on Tuesday and in rebounds on Wednesday. The two games were the fourth time in the last five games that Noel logged more than 20 minutes.

The Sixers are 4-0 in those games.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Atlanta Hawks
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The one in between — a 110-93 loss in Atlanta — Noel was off, scoring just four points and pulling down only three rebounds in 13 minutes, as Okafor logged the majority of the time at center in Embiid’s absence. Noel was a -11 in that game.

That said, the Sixers have won five of their last six games, with Noel missing the first win of the current run last Monday in Milwaukee, as he sat with a sprained ankle. But since the calendar turned to January — the Sixers are 9-3 since the new year — Noel has played in 11 games. When he’s logged 20 or more minutes, the Sixers are 7-1. When Noel played but got less than 20 minutes, the team is 1-2.

Brown has made it clear to the team that he’s no longer messing with different big-man combinations in an effort to get everyone minutes. For a while, that mean Noel was the odd man out, but since he’s been back in the rotation, coinciding with Okafor’s benching in his stead, the Sixers are a much better team, and Noel has served as a secondary rim protector on defense when Embiid isn’t on the floor, contributing mostly on lobs, put-backs and drives to the bucket for high-percentage dunks on offense.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With the last two wins, the Sixers improved to 4-10 without Embiid and 13-17 with him this season.

Since Noel returned to the lineup, though, the Sixers are 3-3 without their star rookie, 9-6 with him and 12-9 overall.

Since his return to the regular rotation, Noel has played in seven games in which both he and Embiid logged at least 19 minutes. The Sixers are 6-1 in those games, the only loss a close 110-106 defeat at Boston in which the Sixers led with 28 seconds to go.

Embiid may be the big star in town, but Noel has clearly earned back the team’s trust and — for the first time in his career — the longest-tenured Sixers finds himself part of a winning rotation.

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