On the Inside: Nerlens Noel

2016-17 Exit Interview: Nerlens Noel

Mavs C Nerlens Noel addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

There are many reasons to appreciate the NBA, and different players possess certain qualities that are easy to appreciate.

Take Dirk Nowitzki, for example. His age-38 season got off to a rocky start, but by the end of the year he was the same ol’ Dirk, relying on smarts and footwork to sink 18-footers and trailing 3s. Each Nowitzki game is a masterclass in the sport’s most subtle nuances. Many people can’t or don’t understand the effect he has on a defense simply by being on the floor, even if he’s camping out 25 feet from the rim. At this point in his career, he’s a thinking man’s superstar.

Then there’s Russell Westbrook, who might be on the opposite end of the spectrum from Nowitzki in terms of making court noise. Westbrook is the most ferocious player, pound-for-pound, perhaps in NBA history. He’s a bicycle-sized freight train who swoops into passing lanes like a hawk, runs the length of the floor like a crazed bull, and dunks with the power an angry Shaq. He’s a 7-footer trapped in a 6-foot frame, and in his attempt to break out of the cage that is his body, he causes chaos all over the floor.

Generally, players are either one or the other. Chris Paul is more like Dirk. Giannis Antetokounmpo is more like Westbrook.

As it happens, though, the Mavericks have one of the few players who consistently flash both the qualities of a cerebral star and a game-breaker. Nerlens Noel is firmly in the middle, for now at least, and how he develops as he grows up — he’s still only 23 years old — will ultimately determine the camp in which he belongs.

Either way, it was very easy to appreciate Noel in his brief stint with the Mavericks to end the season. He appeared in just 22 games, but in that short time he showed enough to make the front office believe in him. Noel will become a restricted free agent this summer, but while nothing is guaranteed, the brass has said many times the goal is to bring him back long-term and make him a key player in this team’s future. This is an attempt to show why they feel the way they do, and why Noel will hopefully be making savvy plays and causing chaos in Dallas for many years to come.

The art of the alley-oop

Noel’s most obvious and significant offensive contribution in his 22 games with Dallas came in the form of finishing alley-oops in the pick-and-roll, particularly in partnership with J.J. Barea, who Noel considers one of the best lob passers on the team, alongside Devin Harris.

Overall in the pick-and-roll (including pops for jump shots), Noel scored 1.184 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. That mark ranked 20th out of 120 in points per possession among players who recorded at least 49 possessions as the roll man, finishing just behind Hassan Whiteside (1.196) and ahead of Nikola Jokic (1.146) and Joel Embiid (1.141). Given his combination of length, quickness, and leaping ability, Noel is a pretty easy lob target.

Through his first half-dozen or so games in Dallas, though, the alley-oop numbers simply weren’t there. It took a while for the guards to know what Noel was thinking, just like it took him some time to learn to read their minds. Throwing and finishing a lob might look easy, but Noel said it’s anything but.

“There’s definitely a lot more than people see, especially when you have so much (responsibility) to harness in the pick-and-roll,” he told Mavs.com. “Being athletic, I can really switch up from short rolls, to knowing when to slip, and just playing off so many different guards that have different tendencies. Whenever you’re playing pick-and-rolls it’s not that simple. You have to see who you’re playing with.”

The Mavs’ offense is a careful, calculating one. Dallas wishes to avoid turnovers like the plague, but Rick Carlisle also wants his team to constantly keep the ball moving, too, and he wants multiple pick-and-rolls until something opens up. That means there’s a lot of real-time negotiating between the ball-handler, the screener, and the primary defenders.

Thankfully for Dallas, Noel understands the game at a high level for such a young player, so he gained a quick grip on the system and when and where to expect the ball. What’s more, he’s got the athleticism to finish over players and contort his body in mid-air to accommodate whichever kind of pass comes his way.

Sometimes, when playing with Barea in particular, Noel said the ball comes his way before he’s even expecting it, not unlike a quarterback who throws a pass to a wide-out before he makes a cut.

As you can see above, though, that can have a devastating impact on the defense. Noel gets to the rim so quickly and can climb so high into the air that other big men are too slow to keep up, and defenders responsible for help become helpless. Barea threw the pass before Noel stepped below the free throw line.

“Some of the guys had to learn how athletic I was, to be able to go and get it,” Noel told Mavs.com. “I think easily seeing what kind of position the (opposing) big man is in, it’s just hard to turn around and be able to get off the floor when you’re trying to play the pick-and-roll, so once I reach his level or get behind him, it really signals the alley-oop (lob) every time.”

But he’s not just a lob threat. Noel can make plays off of short rolls, situations when he receives the pass before he arrives at the rim. As shown below, he’s got the footwork and ball-handling ability to dribble-drive to the rim, but he can also read the defense and find the open man on the move.

“Most of the time, I’ll be rolling to be a target and open up for another guy on the weak side, with his guy coming in to tag,” Noel told Mavs.com. “Most of the time I will be rolling, but different teams play different styles. Sometimes I like to short roll and quarterback the gym.”

Most centers in this league can’t rise for a jump shot and then deliver a sharp pass to a cutter along the baseline. In fact, there are many wings who can’t make that play, either. Noel has been an above-average passer for his position for most of his career, though, even dating back to his high school days when he was able to play some point guard.

Whether it was him moving it or someone else, generally the ball moved better when he was on the floor, especially with veteran guards. In 133 minutes Noel and Barea shared the floor, Dallas assisted on more than 65 percent of its made field goals, per NBA Stats. In the 145 minutes when Noel and Harris played, that number rose to 69.8 percent. For reference, the Warriors led the league in assist rate this season at 70.5 percent, and just one other team finished with a rate higher than 63.1 percent.

The next frontier for Noel in terms of offensive development, particularly in the pick-and-roll game, is developing a reliable mid-range jump shot. Some nights the roll simply won’t be an option because of how some teams pack the paint. In those instances, he’ll need to show he can step out and knock down a couple 15-footers to keep the defense honest.

That was the opening play against Memphis in the last game of the season. Noel was given a jumper by design. It was the second time I can remember Rick Carlisle calling the young center’s number from range on the first set, with the first coming a couple weeks earlier against OKC.

“I think it opens up a new level,” Noel told Mavs.com that night. “No big men can stay with me off the dribble. I think I’m too quick. But with that mid-range jump shot, they’re gonna have to step up on me, and I think my first step is good enough to go by anybody.”

Indeed, if he can hit that shot with any level of regularity, defenses will have to take that into consideration when constructing the gameplan. Even if Noel puts on the 20 pounds he said he hopes to add this summer, he’ll remain quicker than an overwhelming majority of NBA centers. If lumbering big men want to step out and contest the mid-range J, Noel is more than happy to attack them off the dribble.

As for the chemistry and growing more comfortable with the younger guards, Noel said it will come in time — assuming, of course, that he’s back with Dallas next season.

“Me and Seth have grown, me and Yogi have grown together,” he told Mavs.com. “It’ll be hard to really stop a team that gets on the same wavelength with every guard on your team, and the pick-and-roll is just as effective with every guard. I think as we continue to grow and I get more comfortable with them, and they get more comfortable with me, it just continues to help the team.”

That’s the subtle, nuanced, thinking man’s stuff. Now let’s get to the part where he becomes unfair.

Sometimes he breaks the game

Noel is the type of guy who can play perfectly within the confines of the center position. And, yes, “confines” is the appropriate word, because some of the things he does makes you think he’s more suited to play small forward.

Noel can streak down the sideline like a vertical threat in the NFL, reel in a long outlet pass, take a dribble, step through the defense, and finish.

He can also jump a passing lane above the arc, take it coast to coast, and finish with a dunk.

And, most spectacularly, he can intercept a kick-out pass, lead the ensuing fast break, and deliver a one-handed pass in stride to a teammate for a dunk.

It should be noted that Noel is right-handed, but in most of these plays he uses his left hand for most of the skill moves. He’s better finishing floaters and layups with his left hand, too. That ambidexterity is oddly appropriate given his rule-bending, gravity-defying nature.

A coach obviously can’t draw up plays like the ones above. Noel will probably never bring the ball up the floor in the halfcourt, and I’m sure Carlisle would prefer he chase a defensive rebound as opposed to sprinting down the floor every time a shot goes up. But that’s not the point. Noel is a highly skilled, highly athletic player who knows when to push those buttons. If he’s with the Mavericks beyond this season, they can gradually grant him more offensive responsibility with the goal of better utilizing his vision, ball-handling, and athleticism as weapons. That will be very, very interesting to follow.

There’s nothing subtle about his defense

Noel Lines Up Defender For The Kodak Moment

Nerlens Noel picks up the steal, leads the break and then rises up over the defender for the slam.

If Noel’s offensive repertoire is a combination of basketball Art (with a capital “A”) and game-breaking tendencies, his defense is an even more dangerous mix. Generally he plays within the Mavs’ defensive system and makes more conventional plays like the one below, when he comes from the weak side to help a disadvantaged teammate and block the shot.

Noel is always on the prowl, patiently waiting outside the lane for a smaller player to test him. When playing as a traditional center, he’s effective as a rim protector. But every now and then he’s given the go-ahead to become momentarily unhinged and create all sorts of chaos on the perimeter, and that’s when he becomes really intriguing.

Noel singlehandedly derailed that Clippers possession by stepping out against J.J. Redick and then Chris Paul, suddenly and aggressively pouncing on them like a leopard. Some teams ask big men to do this more often, but it’s a risky play. Most guards are quicker and faster than most centers, so generally you want big men to back off or else they risk getting blown by. What’s more, guards are masterful at drawing contact from clumsy 7-footers who might hip-check or stick out an arm just far enough to draw a whistle. (You can see Redick brace for contact above.) But Noel didn’t make contact with either guy, and instead just crowded their space and ultimately forced a turnover.

Most of Noel’s best defensive highlights came when he stepped out to the perimeter. Perhaps his most impressive play on that side of the ball came in a home loss to Toronto when, trying to jumpstart a second-half comeback, Noel was unleashed to blitz, trap, and pressure ball-handlers high up on the floor.

He was almost 40 feet from the rim when DeMar DeRozan sent a pass to Jonas Valanciunas. With some help from Devin Harris, who tagged long enough to slow Valanciunas down, Noel was able to cover all of that ground and stuff his shot at the rim. That’s an incredible play.

Noel’s quickness and instincts, particularly in when knowing to step out versus when to play more conservatively, has turned him into one of the most disruptive defensive centers in the league. From the time he joined the Mavs on Feb. 25, Noel averaged 3.8 deflections per 36 minutes, according to NBA Stats. Among centers who played at least 100 minutes in that time, that mark ranked second.

Noel not only causes a ton of deflections, but he also contests a lot of shots. That means that he’s not completely selling himself out to chase a steal to the point that he’s not in position to protect the rim or get a hand in a shooter’s face, and he can stay in good position against faster players who attack him.

One thing four of the five players from the chart above have in common is they don’t play many minutes, which presumably gives them more energy to create chaos defensively without having to worry about logging 35 minutes. However, Noel played the way he did with Dallas for significantly longer stretches while he was still with Philadelphia, and that suggests he could do the same here if asked. He averages two steals and two blocks per 36 minutes for his career. This guy is a maniac on D.

He’s also quick enough to stay in front of smaller players, as shown below against Washington’s Bradley Beal. He didn’t bite on any of Beal’s fakes and crossovers, instead staying low in a defensive stance, eventually forcing a long jumper off the bounce. Not only does Noel play with energy and fire on defense, but he typically plays with discipline, and that’s not a combination you usually find in young big men.

One of Noel’s biggest issues after joining Dallas, though, came in defending the post against bigger, burlier guys like Cousins and Marc Gasol. With aid from his help defenders, Noel was able to coax those guys into committing turnovers on 16.7 percent of the post-up possessions he faced as a Maverick, which ties for 10th among the 62 bigs who played at least 40 post-up possessions, per Synergy. The Mavs would frequently send help from several different directions, and Noel’s active hands generated plenty of steals.

But Noel’s opponents took a higher volume of free throws than any of those players, going to the line 23.8 percent of the time. Double-teaming and active hands can lead to a ton of contact, and in the instances when Noel is one-on-one against a bigger guy, he’s got to stay vertical and contest a shot without fouling. (That’s where potentially adding 20 pounds could be a big help.)

If you’re going to have one Achilles heel, though, it might as well be there. The league is quickly moving away from the post in favor of more pick-and-roll, and Noel has always excelled there. He is a menace against the play the league relies on the most. That’s good news.

Simply put, Noel can bend and break opposing offenses like great scorers can do to opposing defenses. That’s a very rare quality to find in a player. It will be interesting to see, moving forward, if the Mavericks tweak their defensive system to feature Noel more often in his chaos role.

That’s assuming, of course, that he’s a Maverick in 2017-18. And this summer, there aren’t many bigger priorities for the front office than making sure that’s the case.

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