DALLAS -- When Nerlens Noel took the stage in front of the Dallas media for the first time, the 22-year old Kentucky product looked relieved. He fielded questions with relative ease like an experienced vet. Noel looked like a kid who transferred to a more academically rigorous school, seeming to welcome the challenge laid before him and the expectations attached to its hip.
Noel joins the Mavericks as an essential piece to their rejuvenated roster. His arrival marks a shifting point in a once convoluted rebuilding project. The Mavericks youth movement can push full steam ahead with Nerlens at its core.
Rick Carlisle tried to temper expectations before his debut against the Pelicans. Noel’s talent is undeniable, but a Carlisle offense takes numerous repetitions to master the timing and structure before it becomes second nature. “We traded for him to be our starter and I do think he will be in time,” said Carlisle before the matchup against the Pels. Nerlens didn’t start against the Pelicans, but Carlisle could not help himself with Noel’s playing time.
Nerlens logged 30 minutes in his first game largely due to the two studly former Kentucky big men in the opposing Mardi Gras uniforms. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins waged a war against the Maverick frontcourt in the first quarter. It was the type of bludgeoning that felt never ending. With about six minutes remaining in the first quarter, Noel made his Maverick debut and temporarily quelled the Pellies’ ferocious frontcourt. Carlisle tried taking Noel off the court several times in that first half, but the Brow feasted on every Maverick not named Nerlens en route to a 27-point half.
The stat sheet looked modest, but Noel made his presence felt on both ends of the court. His dives to the rim on pick and rolls vacuumed defenders into the paint, leaving shooters, Dirk Nowitzki specifically, open all evening. “If you have a lob threat, the defense has to suck in otherwise it’s a lob and a dunk. It just opened up a few shots for me today,” said Nowitzki after the win. Dirk looked great playing alongside Nerlens, and the two even connected on a little trickery that Tyson Chandler employed during his hay days with Dirk.
Nice recognition by Noel to give Dirk some space. Dirk bopped him on the head after the jumper to say thanks. pic.twitter.com/4ChEExwV9i— Bobby Karalla (@bobbykaralla) February 26, 2017
Nerlens wasn’t the only young player on the roster who had a major impact on the game. Dorian Finney-Smith pierced the rookie wall with his best performance in over a month. He knocked down a couple threes and scored on a nice baseline cut. Doe Doe’s jumper had abandoned him over the last six weeks after having a nice December. Harrison Barnes mentioned after the game that Finney-Smith was in the gym until 4 a.m. the night before, because he was frustrated with his play in the loss against the Wolves. If Finney-Smith can find his way on the offensive end, he could play a key role in the final 25 games of the season.
Down the stretch in the latter portion of the fourth quarter, Dallas rolled out a lineup with players all under the age of 26. Curry and Barnes ran a little two-man action to close the game, while Yogi Ferrell, Finney-Smith and Noel anchored the defensive end. It was a sight unfamiliar in the last decade of the Dirk era, but a sight nonetheless welcomed. When Carlisle was asked about the youth movement after the game, he responded in a way only Carlisle could, “It’s about time. I mean, hell.”
The addition of Nerlens Noel provides a compass for the Mavericks’ youth movement that was meandering through the forest. A blueprint for a playoff life after Dirk is slowly emerging. Nothing is set in stone, but the Nerlens trade laid out a more concrete future for Dallas. It’s a future that Nerlens sounds like he’s ready to embrace.
“I feel like this is a home for me.”