Practice Report: Nerlens Noel

Mavs C Nerlens Noel dishes on his highly anticipated return from injury tomorrow night against the Thunder.

Mavs center Nerlens Noel will be available to play on Wednesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, barring any unforeseen setbacks.

Noel hasn’t appeared in a game since Nov. 22 and has been inactive since early December following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. Shortly after the new year, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said Noel would begin ramping up his activity throughout January with the hope of returning in February. It took Noel a couple full-contact practices following the All-Star break to receive full clearance to play, but now it appears like he’s finally about to make his long-awaited return to action.

“Especially these last few games, I’ve been really antsy,” Noel said. “Watching guys like Junes, watching (Dennis) develop the whole year, I really want to get out there and help him a little bit.

“I know when I’m out there, it is a difference,” he added. “I’ve just got to assert myself like I know how, and help this team on both sides of the court.”

Noel was impressive in the 22 games he played for Dallas after joining the Mavericks via trade, averaging 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, and a steal in 22 minutes per game. After putting together a 16-point, 11-rebound, three-block performance on opening night against Atlanta, Noel seemed primed for a strong second season in Dallas. However, he gradually received less playing time throughout November before ultimately having thumb surgery.

“The beginning of the year this year was difficult for everybody because of the schedule and so on and so forth,” Carlisle said just before the All-Star break. “Some of his struggles turned out to probably be related to the fact that his thumb had a ligament tear, probably from day one.”

Although he’s right-handed, Noel generally prefers to finish around the rim with his left. That fact, in addition to the obvious risks of playing with ligament damage, led to the choice to have surgery.

“Where I was at, the best thing was just to take care of it,” Noel said. “That’s what I did. At this point in the season, I’m looking forward to tomorrow, coming back. I did what I had to do, and my hand is a lot better.”

The Kentucky product will wear a very small cast on his left hand for now, but not for long. “It’s really not that bad,” he said. In addition to getting used to the cast, he’s readjusting to life without braces. (Those of us who had to suffer through that know how excited he must be for those to be off.)

Noel has remained positive and enthusiastic on the bench during his absence since rejoining the team, and he and Dennis Smith Jr. appear to have a very strong relationship. Now’s the 23-year-old big man’s chance to show that connection in particular can manifest itself in the form of good basketball down the stretch of this season.

“It’s an opportunity for us, as we move along here, to look at potential young groups of guys that could be playing together in the future to see the viability, the chemistry, those kinds of things,” Carlisle said.

“We want athletic, young bigs that can block shots,” Mavs GM Donnie Nelson said after this month’s trade deadline. “We traded for him (last season) for a reason.”

The Mavs still have 21 games left this season, which means Noel has 21 more chances to prove that his hand is healthy and he’s still a fearsome dunker and menacing defender. He showed serious flashes of potential last season before the thumb injury ultimately cost him much of this season. But now that the injury is behind him, hopefully he can quickly return to form.

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