What Does the Future Hold for Nerlens Noel?
Nerlens Noel is good…right?
Of course! He’s a 23-year-old former top-10 pick who has bounced back from missing his first season with a torn ACL to become a budding defensive force in the NBA.
Not really. He can’t stay on the court consistently enough and was traded on his rookie deal so the Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t have to pay him this offseason. His mumblings behind the scenes told the story of a player who could be easily disrupted, rather than engaged, when put through adversity.
The divide is real on Noel, and even though the tepid market right now is a result of his position and restricted rights, it’s interesting that his player profile does reflect a value that changes drastically depending on who you ask. The concerns of the vocally opposed sometimes weigh down the optimism of those in favor.
The position has endured a makeover that has shifted the perception of expectations from centers. Unicorns throughout the NBA have spoiled our expectations for good, forcing us to expect the exceptional while picking apart weaknesses of shooting, shot-blocking or lateral quickness.
This is where Noel, a good defensive center who’s finding his footing on the offensive end, comfortably falls. But since he’s just 23 years old, his ceiling needs to extend beyond just “good.”
Luckily, some evidence hints at exactly that possibility. He compares favorably to a couple of centers who carried the same skill set, per Basketball-Reference.com:
This is not to say he’ll become as good as either DeAndre Jordan or Tyson Chandler, but they’re encompassed in his range of outcomes.
To become that dominant, Noel will need to continue progressing on his rolls to the rim. Asking a center to become as lethal as Jordan in that respect is like asking a guard to extend his range to Stephen Curry territory: not fair. But playing in a Rick Carlisle offensive system that will create some extra spacing should unleash some nice pick-and-roll alleyways for the young buck, similar to the one you can see below:
This is where Noel will need to continue making his bread and butter.
Offensively, it’s tougher to make a fit work if you don’t have range from outside or can’t post up. He showed off some touch toward the end of last year, but it looks unlikely to be an effective part of his arsenal. Instead, he’s shown efficiency in the pick-and roll, where he came producing the same number of points per possessions (PPP) as Anthony Davis as a roller. Still, he’ll need to jack up his number of attempts to get to Davis’ level if he wants to take the next step forward on the offensive side of the ball.
Does Noel Have the Juice to Get to That Elite Level?
Like Jordan, it may come down to Noel finding the right pick-and-roll partner and a system that will highlight his strengths. Up and coming as the Philadelphia 76ers currently look, they were a team that lacked competent point guard play for the two-and-a-half years he played there. Now, he’ll have a chance to form a connection with summer league sensation Dennis Smith Jr., who has shown an ability to penetrate in the lane and cause disruption…if Noel re-signs with the Mavericks.
The rim-running is vital. Becoming a devastating finisher sucks in defenders and forces help defenders to crash the lane to try and suffocate the inside look. Formulating an offense around that dynamic pick-and-roll with shooters around the outside is hardly revolutionary, but Noel becoming that force on an every-night basis makes him integral to a legitimately competitive team.
Last season, he was held down by a minutes restriction because of a knee injury that required surgery at the beginning of the year. Health has been an enduring question, as he’s only played more than 70 games once in his career, and, at his size and with his reliance on athleticism, legitimate questions crop up regarding his durability. The Dallas Mavericks have become renowned for their investment in sports medicine, and as obvious as the pairing looks at this juncture of the offseason, that just points to another reason for the reunion.
But the biggest reason? The Mavericks should be excited to get a full season of Noel, if only for his defensive chops.
Hakeem Olajuwon and Julius Erving are part of a special group of players to have averaged 1.5 blocks and steals per game for their entire careers. They are joined by a certain guy named Noel:
Noel has fantastic instincts and is able to read guards dumping lazy entry passes into the post or on the perimeter. Using his length, he’s able to poke the ball away and give his team transition opportunities. He’s one of six centers to have over 300 steals by the age of 23, and he’s the only one to have done so in fewer than 6,000 minutes.
He ranked in the top 15 in block percentage this past season, showing off his hops while swatting away countless shots at the rim. That type of impact is essential in the modern game, as centers’ value is tied to protecting the rim more than ever, even as offenses grow increasingly spaced out.
Noel put up the best statistical season of his career by a mile in 2016-17, even with the nagging knee and a minutes restriction. He posted career highs in player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, win shares per 48 minutes and total rebounding percentage while also serving as one of the NBA leaders in deflections.
He may end up betting on himself by accepting the qualifying offer., allowing him to play out 2017-18 on a lesser salary and then hit the market as an unrestricted free agent That’ll be a dramatic wake up call from the rumors in May that said there were “multiple teams” willing to dish out the max for him. Regardless, this season will be a key one for Noel to continue developing into a player who can excel on both ends.
The one who can mimic certain elder statesman like Jordan and Chandler.
The one who might be an All-Star.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @Trende19.