Nerlens Noel vs. Michael Carter-Williams: Who is the Face of the 76ers?

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Nov 29, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) has a UK insignia cut into his hair in a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Joyce Center. Notre Dame defeats Kentucky 64-50. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As Carter-Williams was putting up hollow numbers for the league’s second-worst team last season, the intrigue around Noel continued to grow. Part of his allure is his mystery. The unknown masks real-life deficiencies. It’s a part of the reason why Philadelphia fans are so excited about eventually pairing Noel with 2014 first-rounders Joel Embiid and Dario Saric — no one knows exactly how it’s going to play out.

That excitement was palpable in the lead up to Summer League play in Orlando this summer, when fans would finally see Noel don a 76ers jersey. Exhibition basketball games in the summer dominated sports talk radio in Philly. Casual hoops fans were seeking out box scores and checking with their cable providers to see if they had NBA TV.

And Noel didn’t waste any time flashing the skills Philly fans were expecting.

There were the dunks, the blocks, of course, and the surprising free-throw efficiency. It didn’t matter that he was out of position for rebounds and his jumper was often hard to watch. He brought excitement and genuine curiosity, two things that a stagnant franchise has so badly needed over the last decade.

Off the court, Noel seems to “get it”, especially when it comes to the city of Philadelphia at large, which cannot be understated. He posts Instagram photos of himself in a Moses Malone jersey and he talks about how he wants to spend his entire career in Philadelphia. This matters in Philly, perhaps more than most cities.

The fans in Philly want a superstar to endear himself to the town and Noel embraces it much like local legends Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley have done in the past. Even in his absence from the court, he’s ingratiated himself into the fabric of the community and cultivated a relationship with the fanbase, which is something that separates a Brian Dawkins from a Donovan McNabb in terms of public perception.

Not to say Carter-Williams hasn’t, but with Noel it seems organic and reciprocated from the fan’s side. It’s also hard to explain, this relationship between the new local athlete and the people. We’ve all seen MCW go through the ups and downs of a NBA rookie season. With Noel, even though he’s about to go through those same peaks and valleys, there is still an air about him like he’s coming in to save the franchise, to move the team into a positive direction — to help Carter-Williams.

From strictly a basketball perspective, he’s being viewed as a defensive anchor, regardless of his slim frame. He’s going to patrol the paint this season and down the road, will pair with Joel Embiid to form a formidable duo on the block. Analysts and fans alike have prognosticated about the validity of their pairing, how these two seemingly similar giants with the same skills and deficiencies will mesh together, but for now all fans see is potentially the next Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, the next David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

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