Top 5 plays of the week
Dorian Finney-Smith returns to action, Dwight Powell flies high, and Nerlens Noel gets it done at both ends in this week's top 5 plays!
“Courageous. Self-Righteous. Perseverant.”
When I asked Nerlens Noel to describe this past season in Dallas in a couple of words, those were the three words he landed on.
After heading to Dallas in a trade in February of 2017, Noel hit restricted free agency last summer. He came back to Dallas on a one-year qualifying offer that allowed him another season to prove to the league the special player he could be.
Fast-forward through a season of coming off the bench, seeing his role in the rotation vanquished and a Dec. 8 thumb surgery that sidelined him for nearly two months: Noel was finally ready to suit up again.
Noel was activated on Feb. 28, where he came off the bench and played 15 minutes against the Thunder. The time had finally come. The last time he logged minutes in a Mavericks jersey was on Nov. 22.
“The first day back was a lot of nerves,” Noel said. “I came back being antsy for a while trying to come back … just getting more comfortable as time went along. Having Dennis [Smith Jr.] and J.J. [Barea], great floor generals that help ease me into it as the game went along.”
For fans, it was a chance to see Noel on the court again. But for Noel, it was a reward for all of the time he spent off the court rehabbing a thumb injury that had been nagging him since the start of the season.
“The beginning of the year was difficult for everybody because of the schedule and so on and so forth,” Rick Carlisle said back in early February. “Some of his struggles turned out to probably be related to the fact that his thumb had a ligament tear, probably from day one.”
A thumb injury might sound minor compared to an ACL or other long-term injuries, but Noel explained how the recovery process was different than anything he had ever experienced. We probably all take our thumbs for granted and after the surgery, Noel learned how grueling life without one is.
“It was different. It was the most different type of recovery I have went through because it is just the thumb,” Noel said. “You have to be mindful just taking care of it day-to-day. You never know how much you use your thumb until you are not using it.”
Even though Noel shoots with his right hand, the injury was difficult because he views his left hand as his dominant hand.
“Just staying patient in the cast I had,” he said. “Not being able to do anything with my left hand which I feel is my dominant hand. Just easing it back and getting more used to it on the court. Doing more work with the medicine ball, the basketball feels like a feather come game time.”
Two of the guys he credits as crucial to his development and recovery this season are assistant coaches Jamahl Mosley and Melvin Hunt.
“Mose is more of my workout dude and staying on me on things I need to work on around the rim,” he said. “Staying in shape and staying on me about that. Coach Mel for my mental and taking me aside and telling me to stay encouraged and keep going.”
But those aren’t the only pillars he credits for his development as a person and player this season. Noel’s former coach in Philadelphia, Brett Brown, has played a prominent role.
“Coach Brown has been in my corner. He has been in my corner since I left Philly and always checking in on me,” Noel said. “Making sure I was staying on the right things. Going back to my rookie year, he was the first coach I had in this league. He is a very genuine guy that has helped me out a lot.”
Noel was drafted by Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers with the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. He would appear in 171 games through three and a half seasons before being traded to Dallas.
For the past two months, Noel’s spent countless hours in the training facility working on not only his rehab, but simply putting in the work to become a better overall player. Work ethic is big for Noel and it was that work ethic that was in question throughout parts of the season. When we talked earlier in the year about outside voices questioning his effort, it didn’t bother Noel because he knows the work he puts into the game to be the best player he can be.
“I think you can make anything up. I know I work hard and I do what I got to do. I know the reason I am in the position I am in is because I worked hard,” Noel said earlier in the season.
“With injuries, I had the ACL injury, I had to work really hard to get back from that,” he said in December. “It isn’t really going to bother me. I’m not really worried if anybody feels sorry for me, but I’m just worried about myself and making sure I got to do what I got to do. I’m doing what I am doing even when I am not playing; I think that speaks to more mental work with hard work. I just keep my head down, keep pushing and get better and better.”
Dallas is now entering the final month of the season eliminated from playoff contention. For the Mavs, it’s a time to see what they have in Noel and their young core.
“That is what we are looking at,” Carlisle said. “We have a period of games here to look at it. As we go along we will have to tweak things and adjust things.”
Even for the veterans like Dirk Nowitzki, it’s nice to have another athletic body on the court that can grab rebounds and impact the game defensively.
“It is good to see Nerlens back and playing way above the rim with great blocks,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously his timing and his catching will get a lot better as he plays more. It is good to see him back and good to see athletes out there. We have definitely missed some of that.”
With the recent signing of Jameel Warney and counting the two-way players in Jalen Jones and Johnathan Motley, the Mavericks have a total of 13 players on the roster that are 26 years old or younger. Six of those players are 24 years old or younger. The only players on the roster that are over the age of 28 are Nowitzki, Barea, Wesley Matthews and Salah Mejri. As the Mavericks try to sort through who will be a member of their young core moving forward, Noel realizes it has the potential to be something special.
“I think this young core could be special. Take this past game against Denver, they were one of the hottest teams in the West. We just walked in there like they were just any other team,” Noel said.
The Mavericks beat the Nuggets 118-107 in the game behind 24 points from Yogi Ferrell, a double-double from Smith Jr. and a 14-rebound performance from Noel.
“We played our game and played hard. Everybody had fun,” Noel said. “Yogi was hooping like he can. Dennis was getting to the basket 11 assists and 18 points. I was able to get rebounds and change the game defensively. Dirk was hitting shots and HB. When guys are playing like that with such a young core you can only get better. Against a team like that, that is special.”
It is a new age of Mavericks basketball and the Mavericks want to see if Noel can be a part of that for the long run.
“I view these [last stretch of games] as some of the most enjoyable basketball games of my life,” Noel said. “Just taking the weight off your shoulders and playing ball especially turning the corner with the guys. Like Dennis and Yogi and J.J., just feeling my game. The game just becomes more fun. You can just naturally go out there and play and not really have to worry about anything, just having fun.”
How much more fun can you have when you get to play with one of your good friends who just happens to be the new star point guard on the team. Noel and Smith Jr., two of the youngest guys on the team, have gravitated toward each other as the year’s gone along. Out of all the topics we talked about for over 30 minutes after practice, nothing made him light up more than talking about his relationship with Junior. From their similar upbringings to bragging rights in NBA 2K, their relationship is blossoming off the court.
“Dennis and I have really grown together,” Noel said. “Even when I wasn’t playing we would still hangout and do a lot of things together. He is just a kid that pretty much comes from the same background that I do. Just from a different region.”
“We really relate on a lot of things in life and it really makes it that much easier to be yourself and be transparent with somebody and build that relationship,” Noel added.
But what about NBA 2K, who gets to talk the most smack when you’re on the sticks?
“We’re always going at it. I definitely beat him in 2K and Madden,” Noel said.
Noel went on to explain how Dennis plays with the best teams in the league while real players test their talent using any team in the league.
“He doesn’t like playing randoms though. He only likes the top-five teams. You have to test your skills with randoms.”
Video games are one thing, but actually playing on the court together is another.
“I think it brings a new dynamic with me and Dennis with the speed of the game,” Noel said after his first game back. “I know that is the way he likes to play and the way I like to play too for us to excel.”
Noel is anxious to build on the rapport the tandem has developed so far.
“Come out here and establish more chemistry game-by-game with Dennis … The more time I play and the games go along, I am going to get better with these guys and get back to where we were at before.”
On opening night, Noel had one of his best games in Dallas where he posted 16 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 19 minutes of play. Getting back to that type of game shape will take some time.
“That game I was in great shape and I am in pretty good shape now. It is hard to get in game shape without playing games in the NBA. It’s all going to come,” Noel said.
As we shifted our conversation to the topic of his relationship with Rick Carlisle, it was a chance for Noel to speak directly on the subject after spending over a year with one of the game’s best.
“Our relationship is good,” Noel said.
“Coach Carlisle is a good guy and a family man. He definitely understands me like I understand him. We’ve never had any type of conflict because at the end of the day we really understand each other for the most part,” Noel expanded.
Noel joined the Mavericks at the trade deadline last season. He was immediately thrust into Carlisle’s system and had to learn everything on the fly. His relationship with Carlisle has come a long way since then.
“We have gotten closer,” Noel said. “When I first got here I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I knew he was a great coach. We slowly started communicating more and being more open about things. Even through the summer when I stayed here for a little bit after the season working with him and trying to grow.”
Noel’s last three coaches: John Calipari, Brett Brown, and Rick Carlisle.
What makes Carlisle different than the other two?
After praising them all as “exceptional coaches,” Noel talked about the ability they all have to challenge their players and push them when they need to.
“Carlisle definitely expresses himself maybe a little different. I think all coaches have that ability to turn up and yell at you when they need to. I think all three coaches have that ability to push you when they need to,” Noel said.
On what exactly separates Carlisle from the other two, Noel brings up the evident wit of Rick.
“Maybe his wit. All coaches are perfectionists, but Carlisle is really a perfectionist to a T,” Noel said. “Constantly on everything. He is really on top of everything to the X’s and O’s to how you walk and how you talk. Just everything surrounding you. It is definitely good to have a coach like that that wants you to be a perfectionist. It is really contagious.”
Nerlens Noel is somewhat of an enigma. One day he’s throwing down high-flying dunks and the next he’s doing an interview with Kevin Hart in a cold tub.
“I know Kevin from a little while back from when I was in Philly. He hollered and wanted me to come up and do it. It ended up being very funny and he is just a courageous guy who is off-the-wall funny. The movies he has done like Jumanji I just seen, it was great. We talked a lot about advice and life. Relationship advice especially,” Noel said.
The last month of the season is huge for Noel as he is set to hit free agency once again this summer for the second consecutive year. Except this time, he will be unrestricted and free to sign with the team of his choice.
When opening up about his upcoming summer, Noel wants to head into the offseason with a clear head.
“Definitely just an open mindset. Different type of free agency. Little more broad now,” Noel said in reference to being an unrestricted free agent.
“Once this summer ends I’ll be working harder than I’ve ever worked. Just growing in this league and being older. Getting the priorities right and evolving. My mindset has only grown stronger in what I really want in life and want from this game. Right when the season ends I will strictly be working on my game and staying to myself and just letting things play out.”
Money aside, what would be the draw to come back to Dallas and be a member of the Mavericks again?
“Obviously having a young core like this and having an experienced coach who knows how to put you in a position to succeed on the court especially one who is an X’s-and-O’s genius that can draw anything up,” Noel said.
“I know coach Carlisle. I think we think similar from that point of view in just basketball. Whether he knows it or not, I really respect how he goes about his day and manages things. That’s why I understand him a little more as time goes along. He just bounces things off me and I really challenge myself to succeed in those things.”
On if he can see himself in a Mavs jersey next season, Noel said he would definitely be open to it. “I can’t say I can’t. I will definitely be open. I am excited to see how the season ends and see what we can make happen,” Noel said.
The chapter on Noel’s 2017-18 season is coming to an end, but the next one is only beginning. Hopefully it will be in Dallas.
Only time will tell.