DALLAS — After showing a glimpse of what he can accomplish during 22 games with the team last year, the Dallas Mavericks are hopeful center Nerlens Noel can continue to tap into his raw potential this upcoming season.
Last season, the Mavericks acquired Noel from Philadelphia in a trade-deadline deal on Feb. 23, sending back former first-round pick Justin Anderson, veteran center Andrew Bogut (who was later bought out) and a pair of second-round picks in exchange. Noel then quickly showed how effective he can be in Mavs coach Rick Carlisle’s system at both ends of the floor, averaging 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 1.1 blocks while clocking 21.9 minutes per outing. He also made 12 starts during his 22 appearances, anchoring a front line that featured leading scorer Harrison Barnes and 13-time All-Star power forward Dirk Nowitzki. Still, after signing Noel to a reported one-year qualifying offer worth $4.1 million this summer in free agency, the Mavericks are confident Noel can display even more down low this season.
“I mean, he’s still raw. He’s an athlete, he’s got amazing instincts and he’s got a motor. And when you have a lob threat and a motor, or someone who is athletic like that, it opens up the game,” Mavs veteran swingman Wesley Matthews said earlier this offseason while assessing Noel’s impact on the team. “If he doesn’t get it, he’s drawing enough attention that you can swing it to the weak side and then play on the other side with a man down. That’s what basketball is all about. It’s about creating a crowd, creating a problem and making two people guard the ball, and then giving it up and making a play.”
Suffering a torn ACL as a freshman at Kentucky, Noel missed the entire ’13-14 NBA schedule after garnering First Team All-SEC, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and SEC Rookie of the Year honors during his lone collegiate season. He then made up for lost time during the ’14-15 campaign, showing no signs of the ACL injury while averaging 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks in 75 games to earn a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Noel holds career averages of 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks in 193 total games with the 76ers and the Mavericks, connecting on a staggering 51.1 percent from the floor during that span. But after seeing former big men Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright shoot better than 60 percent during their previous stints with the Mavs, Carlisle is confident Noel can have a similar impact this season as he grows more comfortable in his new surroundings.
“That’s a trade that made a lot of sense for us, because we had an overload at the wing position,” Carlisle said of the initial deal for Noel’s services shortly after the conclusion of the ’16-17 season.
“You know, he’s going to gain more strength as time goes on,” the coach added. “You know, we put a big emphasis on the development of players’ bodies, keeping them healthy and keeping them strong. I talked to him about it 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 very impressed with him. He’s a very likable guy. The guys in the locker room took to him, and he’s an exciting young talent. And 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 towards a group of guys being tied together in the locker room and having a set of definable skills. We want there to be an element of positive predictability within the team, so everybody knows what everybody can do.”
According to Noel, he quickly built a bond and chemistry with the Mavericks’ veteran guards last season while operating in the team’s pick-and-roll sets. Noel also says he could see much more individual success with a full year in the same system, hoping to continue expanding his interior skills to give the Mavs a lift at both ends of the floor. That said, the 6-foot-11 big man believes he could be on the verge of a breakout season. And with plans of working tirelessly alongside Carlisle, Noel will try to tap into his full potential this season.
“I think I built a lot of chemistry,” Noel proclaimed while recapping his short stint with the team last season. “You know, Philadelphia was a little different situation with guys coming in and out, and I was just trying to find the right niche with young guards that could play. But this team had a veteran group that already knows how to play pick-and-roll. I know they’ve had Brandan Wright and Tyson, so they’re experienced guards. You know, I think it was something that I definitely needed and something that will continue to grow, assuming things go the way that they should into the next year.
“I’ll be looking to spend a lot of time with coach Carlisle. You know, the work that we’ve gotten in over the last month (of the ’16-17 season) is something that, if you get a whole offseason, I think we can make really big strides with. You know, I think this is the biggest offseason of my career, being with a new team and being in a new environment. And I can really build on some things that I wasn’t really capitalizing on in past seasons.”