DALLAS — Although it was only a small sample size after his midseason addition to the team at the trade deadline, the Dallas Mavericks see 23-year-old center Nerlens Noel’s game expanding during the years to come in coach Rick Carlisle’s system.
Making a trade with Philadelphia on Feb. 23 to acquire Noel’s services, the Mavericks sent back second-year swingman Justin Anderson, center Andrew Bogut and a 2017 protected first-round pick in exchange. The Mavs were then delighted to see Noel thrive during his brief time with the team this season after the 6-foot-11 big man averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.0 steals per outing during his 22 appearances. And despite Noel’s pending restricted free agency on July 1, Carlisle says he’s encouraged by what he saw from the athletic big man and how the coach sees his skills expanding moving forward.
“We traded a guy who was a first-round pick for him with an additional couple of draft picks, and so I do know it will be a priority (to re-sign Noel),” Carlisle explained. “You never know for sure, but we’re extremely happy with him. I’m excited about him. From afar, I was always a guy who was enamored with his ability to deflect balls and make plays at the rim at both ends, and he’s done a lot of good things here.
“You know, he’s going to gain more strength as time goes on. We put a big emphasis on the developmental players’ bodies, keeping them healthy and keeping them strong. I talked to him about it (after the season) in detail, and he’s on board. As a guy that’s had an ACL (injury) and stuff like that, he understands at age 23 that your body is your vocation. It’s what earns you your living and stuff, so I’ve been impressed with him. He’s a very likable guy. Guys in the locker room took to him, and so he’s an exciting young talent. I do think he can expand his game, but we’ve got to be careful about doing too much too soon. So much of success in this league is really geared toward a group of guys being tied together in the locker room and having a set of definable skills, and we want there to be an element of positive predictability within the team, so that everybody knows what everybody can do.”
Noel showed no ill effects from suffering a torn ACL during his lone colligate season at Kentucky on Feb. 12, 2013. He started 12 of his 22 games with the Mavericks this season, showing quickly why he was so coveted by the Dallas front office. He also made the most of his 22 minutes per game, shooting 57.5 percent from the field and emerging as a lob threat for the Mavs’ veteran guards. But after growing under Carlisle’s tutelage, the young big man sees much more on the horizon with a second year in the same system.
“You know, I think it will be a big offseason for me. I’ll be looking to spend a lot of time with coach Carlisle. You know, the work that we’ve gotten over this last month is something that, if we get a whole offseason, we can make really big strides with. So, I think this is probably the biggest offseason of my career, being with a new team and being in a new environment, to really build on some things,” Noel candidly said.
Noel integrated himself into the Mavericks’ locker room quickly after his addition in the middle of the season, building chemistry with the team’s veteran backcourt almost instantly. He also showed that he can be a regular fixture for the Mavs in the first unit, tallying 15 points and a monster 17 rebounds in his first start with the team during a 104-100 victory at home over Memphis on March 3.
The former Kentucky standout also thrived in a similar role as ex-Dallas big men Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright, showcasing his uncanny ability as a finisher while operating in the pick-and-roll. And with a natural knack for finishing above the rim, Noel’s veteran teammates see his game expanding during another year in Dallas.
“I mean, he’s still raw,” swingman Wesley Matthews said while praising Noel’s attributes. “He’s an athlete, he’s got amazing instincts and he’s got a motor. And when you have a lob threat and you have a roller, or someone who is athletic like that, it opens up the game. If he doesn’t get it, he’s drawing enough attention that you can get something on the weak side of the play or the other side with a man down, and that’s what basketball is all about. It’s about creating a crowd, creating a problem, making two people guard the ball, giving it up and making a play.”
“Well, I think he helped me, too. Having that big and athletic guy that can finish, that’s something we need on this team,” veteran guard J.J. Barea confessed. “I think he’s got a lot of potential. I think he can get way better, but he was good for us. I like being out there at the same time. I think it helped me, it helped him and it helped the team, so we’ll see what happens with that.”
The sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft now says that chemistry could continue to develop going into next season. He also hopes to continue learning from Carlisle and the Mavericks’ veteran core as he unlocks his full potential. And despite his pending restricted free agency, Noel admits that the future appears bright in Dallas.
“You know, there’s not really too much I can control right now. I’m just ready to work,” Noel said. “I’m worried about just getting back to work. You know, I’m resting up a little while. And then when the time is right, I’ll make sure that I’m staying in the right places. I love Dallas. In my short time here, I’ve really enjoyed it. I think it’s been a great time. And with the pieces that we have and the opportunities that could be seen in the near future, I think there’s a lot to be excited for. But obviously, there’s some things that will be worked out, most likely, and we’ll just go from there.
“I think I built a lot of chemistry. I think Philadelphia was a little different situation, with guys coming in and out, and just trying to find the right niche with young guards that can play. But this team had a veteran group that already knows how to play pick-and-rolls. I know they’ve had Brandan Wright and Tyson, so they’re experienced guards. And I think it was something I definitely needed. It’s something that will continue to grow, assuming things go the way they should into next year.”