Ready to Breakout: Nerlens Noel

What a year it has been for Nerlens Noel. In February, Philadelphia traded Noel to the Dallas Mavericks. After a few months of solid play with the Mavs, Marc Cuban offered Noel a 4-year $72 million contract — the going rate for a starting-caliber center. However, under the illusion that this was still 2016 and teams were giving away max contracts like they were mixtapes in Times Square, Noel and his agent rejected the initial offer and tested free agency.

At the end of the summer, Noel was left with nothing but to sign his qualifying offer of 1-year for $4 million. Truly devastating. But this leaves only one option for Nerlens: He must play his way out. Noel now has the opportunity to shine this upcoming season and play for a real max contract. If he plays to his potential, the Mavs may happily pay him much more than their original offer. Barring injury setbacks (a big if with Noel), he has the opportunity to show off his skills as a great modern NBA big man.

Defense

Noel stands 6'11 with a wingspan over 7 feet, a huge vertical leap and very quick feet. The man was born to play defense and Head Coach, Rick Carlisle, has taken note. He told SportsDay, “It’s great to have a guy of that size and length with that kind of quickness. He can protect the rim, but he can also switch out and guard 3-point shooters on the perimeter. There are just not many guys like that around.”

That kind of versatility is what makes Noel the second coming of Tyson Chandler. Noel has already shown a great ability to patrol the rim as the last line of defense; he held opponents to 53% shooting within 6 feet of the hoop while on the floor this year, according to NBA Stats. This is on par with other defensive stalwarts like the Memphis Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol. 
 
 Noel is an extremely active defender. Watch a few minutes of Mavs game and his defensive energy jumps off the screen. He is engaged on every possession, sliding his feet with ease, ready to pounce on a mistake by the opposing team. Watch Noel here as he snuffs out this backdoor cut:

Noel shadows a Julius Randle postup and eyes the potential kickout options. While his primary matchup sneaks backdoor, Noel responds quickly and knocks the dunk attempt away. Noel has all the physical tools and now paired with Carlisle for a full offseason, he can combine those physical tools with a disciplined defensive approach. Rick Carlisle breaks bad habits like this and demands that his players be in the right position, especially his defensive eraser. It counts for a lot to impact an offenses ability to score by just simply being a massive human being in the right spot on the court. Its no surprise that Nowitzki has taken Noel under his wing, he needs and Noel’s development badly, they have lockers next to each other.
 
 While Nowtizki can be in the right place at the right time, Noel is the only Mav that has the physical tools to make stops like this:

Most people would leave Marc Gasol with his highlight-rell dunk after a perfectly executed pick and roll, but not Noel. He makes the extra effort and is rewarded with a highlight of his own.
 
 Watch how Noel covers for the huge mismatch Seth Curry faces in trying to guard Chandler Parsons:

These plays are what make Noel such an interesting prospect. He is an eraser. No matter what poor defense the Dallas Mavericks play (and they have a lot of poor defenders), Noel has the ability to swallow attempts at the rim, deflect errant passes, and change games with his defense. If he acquires more discipline, Carlisle may have found his last line of defense for years to come.

Offense

Offense is a slightly different story for Noel. While on defense he has the ability to make significant plays all by himself, on offense he is dependent on his teammates. Noel has not shown a post up game, much to the ire of Charles Barkely and “old school” bully ballers everywhere. In Dallas, Noel has averaged nearly zero post ups per game, according to NBA Stats. But that makes sense in a motion-offense like the one Carlisle runs. 
 
 Where Noel does excel is in the pick and roll. Here Noel’s athleticism shines as he throws down easy lobs. Dallas stretches the floor well with plus-shooters at nearly every position. Noel is a perfect match for the best stretch power forward of all time: Dirk Nowitzki. All the space gives Noel ample room to dive down the lane and destroy the rim. There is so much room in lineups featuring Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrel, Harrison Barnes, Nowitzki, and Noel, one of the Mavs most used lineups, and is a striking +5 points per 100 possessions. Watch him populate Lob City after a textbook slip on a transition pick and roll:

Noel has amazing timing on slipping the screen. He does a great job of getting in the way of Mike Conley just enough to force Zach Randolph to commit to a Seth Curry drive. Noel’s fleet of foot allows him to then sprint to the rim for the easy finish. Here is another example:

That is what Noel does. As the roll man, Noel scores 1.10 points per possession. That is the same mark as Anthony Davis (though on about a third as many possessions per game). According to NBA Savant, Noel shoots 71% from the restricted area. These easy buckets open up so much more for Rick Carlisle to play with. Having a vertical advantage like Noel’s dives to the hoop forces help defenders to meet him high in the lane, leaving a team vulnerable to weak side action. As Noel spends more time with Carlisle and the team, it’s only natural that a more potent Mavericks offense will develop around Noel as the roll man.
 
 Another way Noel helps open up the offense, is his surprising passing ability. Noel is no Vlade Divac, but he has shown the ability to make some very nice passes and Carlisle gave him more opportunities from the elbows as the season went on:

This type of versatility from a big man is the stuff that coaches dream about. Now, Noel definitely tries threading the needle a little too often, and he needs to let unreachable blocks go. Discipline is necessary for him to take the next step and to earn that max, or just more lucrative, contract. But the Mavs are just the team to teach this discipline, with their veteran leaders and legendary head coach. Just yesterday, Rick Carlisle said he was unsure if Noel is going to start for the Mavs, but if you look up and down their roster, there are not many alternatives. This may just be about motivating Noel to work harder and learn faster. It would be shocking if Noel is not their starting center by the end of the year, considering the team is bereft of plus defenders. It is a pivotal year for Noel, and its not off to the start he envisioned. But that’s the story of his career so far. Now is the time for Noel to let his play do the talking after a tumultuous summer.