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Nerlens Noel as a Maverick is exciting and frightening

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The young Maverick big man is full of potential, and we need to talk about it.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel has started one game and played about 120 minutes as a Maverick, which means it’s time to make some assumptions about what he can do in Dallas. You might say, “this is presumptuous!” but on the other hand, you did click on the link. So let’s parse this script.

The big question with Noel, obviously, is his health. It pushed him down in the draft, took away his rookie year and probably cost him a starting job with the 76ers this season. It is also the reason the Mavericks were able to acquire him.

Healthy 7-foot 22-year-olds with his rebounding percentage and defensive numbers have a lot of room to grow. There’s certainly some question as to Noel’s long-term health prospects, but based on Cuban and the training staff’s read on Chandler Parsons, we can probably trust the team to make the right call here.

In other words, Noel’s rookie deal is up in about 15 regular season games, and barring something catastrophic, the Mavericks will be sending him a basket of diamonds and asking him to become their starting center for the next five years. Assuming he has a future in Dallas, what can we expect to see from Noel going forward?

Noel the Maverick versus Noel the Sixer

In his six games as a Maverick, Noel has showcased his length, energy and rim protection, the qualities on which he’s built his pedigree as a NBA player. His per-36-minute stats reflect that:

On a 36-minute time frame, Noel has always been an automatic near double-double with multiple blocks. That hasn’t changed in Dallas. What has dipped in his game is steals, but in exchange, his rebounds are up.

This next table shows a lot of the same stats, but in a way that accounts for differences in pace and possession among teams, making it a little easier to compare his time in Dallas to his time in Philly:

I think there’s a chance he continues to get more rebounds and fewer steals as a Maverick than he did as a Sixer. In Dallas, he’s playing center full-time and is matched with either an aging outside shooter or a 6-foot-8 small forward, whereas in Philly, Noel was sometimes bumped to power forward to accommodate Joel Embiid or Jahlil Okafor.

Looking forward, with optimism

Noel’s shooting efficiency has gone up during his time as a Maverick, and although we shouldn’t read too much into specific numbers after just six games, there are some promising underlying trends worth noting.

One word of caution: there is definitely a little luck baked in right now. Although his shooting plays have moved closer to the rim (his average shot distance is down from five feet to four in Dallas), he is hitting at 70 percent from between three and 10 feet and 40 percent beyond 10 feet, both well above his career averages. That will likely not last.

More shots from short range

What can last, and even improve, is his volume of at-the-rim shots. Even before he came to Dallas, he was taking a larger portion of his shots closer to the rim this year than previous years. Take a look at how the percentage of his shots taken within three feet of the basket has changed over the last few seasons:

  • 2014-15: 46.2 percent
  • 2015-16: 54.5 percent
  • 2016-17: 62.5 percent

This shows an adaptive player who understands his personal shooting heat map and helps explain why Noel is shooting a career-high 61 percent from the field in 2016-17. His basketball IQ and willingness to modulate his shots means he can be effective inside offense for Dallas.

A popular comparison in this respect is Tyson Chandler, who shot 77 percent of his shots within three feet during his two years as a Maverick. A very simplistic if-then scenario says that if Noel had replicated Chandler’s 77 percent inside-three-feet shot distribution while maintaining his other career stats, Noel’s career field goal percentage would be 59 percent rather than its current 51 percent, a massive lift.

Chandler, who was magical at sticking to his strengths and never averaged more than eight field goal attempts in any season, was a modern star role player. It remains to be seen whether Noel will follow a similar path or if the Mavericks want to get something else out of him.

Room for growth in the pick and roll

One area in which the Mavs might want more of out of him (and one way to get Noel more shots) is running pick and rolls, which Dallas knows like nobody’s business. The line of successful Maverick rollers is long, stretching from Chandler to Brandan Wright to Salah Mejri. In fact, Mejri is scoring 1.59 points per possession (PPP) as a roll man this year, which is in the 99.5th percentile in the NBA.

By comparison, Noel is in the 70th percentile at 1.10 PPP, but that is mostly with Philly. Setting firm picks and making smart reads may represent the next step in the evolution in his offensive game.

Excellence in transition

One area he already excels is in transition (the information below is from stats.nba.com):

One of the highlights from that chart: Noel has a 1.41 PPP in transition, which is in the 94.3rd percentile. For context, LeBron has a 1.31 PPP in transition. This is what Dirk was really talking about when he said Noel “runs like a deer.”

Running like an animal that has a top speed of 30mph is always a good sign for a big man, especially if they’ve had a couple ole’ knee surgeries. Noel’s natural speed is probably going to make the team play faster, which makes sense as the majority of the rotation is now young and athletic.

A good fit in the rotation

Speaking of rotation, Noel has been paired the most with Seth Curry (114 minutes) and Barnes (106 minutes), which probably makes convenient sense since these three amigos are the building blocks for the post-Dirk era. It’s hard to confidently take too much away from his lineup numbers at these minute totals, but it’s good to see Noel’s net rating skew positive with every Mavs rotation regular and, in many cases, in the double digits. It is early but it looks like there is some youthful and athletic synergy in these building blocks.

NBA: Miami Heat at Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have retooled around Barnes, Noel and Curry to become younger and more athletic.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In summary, Noel is smart enough to block shots and get deflections without getting into foul trouble on defense, and he finds ways to contribute efficiently on the other end. In his current state, he is a raw bundle of roving octopus arms, legs and energy that’s already producing. With some polish and the right schemes, Noel could evolve into a Spurs-slaying giant squid.

Giant squid-level Noel could anchor a team’s defense on one end while providing elite offensive points in transition and as a roll man. At the high end of his development, he maybe even develop a quality open mid-range jumper, if his improving free-throw percentages are any indicator (53 percent in college to 60 percent as a rookie, then to 68 percent this year).

Given his talent and his smarts, Noel’s early results under a coach like Carlisle aren’t too surprising. The $64,000 question for the Mavericks is if they can keep Noel on the court. He played 75 games in his “rookie” year and his games played has only decreased every year since. Dallas has a top training staff behind Casey Smith, and the brain trust has done a good job of health risk management, but it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of luck when it comes to big men with a history of knee injuries.

Let’s hope we get a full viewing of Noel for the remainder of the season before Cuban has to cut that check.