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The good, bad and ugly from Nerlens Noel’s first month in Dallas

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There’s been a lot of good, a little bad and some ugly from Noel’s time as a Maverick so far this season.

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

The hype and excitement from the Nerlens Noel trade has quieted a tad for now as we head into the normalcy of Noel wearing a Mavericks uniform. Sounds like about as good a time as any to look and see how he’s doing.

It’s still pretty remarkable that the Mavs got away with grabbing Noel without surrendering a first-round pick, and Noel has showed a lot in his 12 games so far.* There are some quirks, and not everything’s perfect, but Noel appears to be a prototypical center for the modern NBA and one the Mavs can hopefully expect to keep around for another decade.

The Good: Noel is as advertised

There’s always a slight worry when a player is traded from a bad situation to a good situation how he’ll respond. Everything about Noel — his numbers, his game, his tape, his body — screamed that he was just an opportunity away from exploding. His per-36 numbers have been remarkable for someone who’s the age of a college senior.

It’s an irrational worry but it was there — what if he doesn’t live up to the hype? What if his market value was absurdly low for a reason? There could have been any number of things going on with Noel behind the scenes (attitude, health) that we weren’t aware of that tanked his value to where the Mavs could get him on the cheap.

Turns out, nah, he’s pretty damn good.

Noel is doing all the things we expected of him during his first 12 games as a Maverick. He’s a defensive terror, an explosive pick and roll player and a freak athlete. The Mavs give up 104.5 points per 100 possessions when Noel is on the floor according to NBA.com, which would be a top-10 defense if played out a full season. His ability to protect the rim and hedge pick and roll ballhandlers is otherworldly and there aren’t many dudes in the league that can swat shots and play the passing lanes equally as dominant.

He covers so much ground it’s scary. Imagine Brandan Wright’s athleticism and speed with the defensive instincts of Tyson Chandler and that’s what you get from Noel on that end of the floor.

Don’t try to sneak soft passes by him, because he will absolutely snatch them up. It gives the Mavs the punch they need in their pick and roll defense. Typically, the Mavs play a conservative style to help mask Dirk’s deficiencies. But with Noel, the playbook opens up a little more and the Mavs can be a little more aggressive.

Offensively, Noel has fit like a glove — mostly. He’s still learning Rick Carlisle’s system, but his finishing and offensive ability is as good as we hoped. He’s finishing at the rim (67.4 percent in the restricted area since coming to Dallas), creating good looks for his guards and displaying some really heady passing out of pick and rolls.

The pick and roll offense and finishing isn’t surprising — it was easy to imagine a guy like Noel slipping into Chandler and Wright’s old roles from two years ago and looking smooth. It has been the other things around it — passing, driving, making decisions — that’s been a nice surprise.

Noel has always had a pretty underrated face-up and drive game, and now in Carlisle’s system and surrounded by competent guards and offensive players, he has even more room to work with. Noel is not a one-trick pony in the pick and roll, and if a defense plays him for the lob, he’ll use the extra space to work into a good shot.

There have been plenty of plays like the one above where Noel uses a quick first step to blow by a flat-footed defender in space. It’s a nice weapon to have as teams pack the paint when Noel sets screens. Noel earning the respect of defenders when he catches the ball near the free throw line will open up his game and allow him to mix it up. He’ll have options for whatever the defense throws at him and not just hoping to catch lob dunks every time he’s rolling to the rim.

His passing has been good too, perhaps a bit better than expected. Noel threw some nifty passes during his time in Philadelphia, but he also forced some things, which is to be expected on a team like that. Some of the passes he’s made with the Mavericks though...they are something.

Noel rarely panics when he gets the ball in traffic and is really good at picking out three-point shooters in the corner — a vital skill for a pick and roll big. No one is confusing him for Draymond Green when he catches the ball off a pick and roll against a scattered defense, but he makes the plays presented to him, which is a big win for a player as young as himself. Even if this is where his passing tops out, it’s plenty good enough for what the Mavericks need of him. It’s part of the reason the Mavs are so great when Noel is on the floor, scoring 110.1 points per 100 possessions so far since the trade.

He’s also hitting 69 percent of his free throws since the trade, which is huge. Remember when teams got frustrated at Chandler back in 2011 and would hack him to prevent a barrage of lob dunks and he made them pay anyway? Noel’s going to find himself open under (and above) the rim a lot playing next to Dirk and under Carlisle. Making the free ones is crucial as teams get frustrated and want to take away his easy points.

I’ve noted before that Noel moves and runs like a guard — there’s no awkwardness at all when he’s getting down the floor. That goes with all aspects of his game, offense and defense. There’s a smoothness there unlike most bigs in the league. Bobby Karalla of Mavs.com noted that Noel told him he used to play a little point guard in high school, presumably before he hit a growth spurt. It shows.

His 5.7 net rating is the best on the team since the trade — Noel is working.

The Bad: big centers are feasting against Dallas

As mentioned above, there hasn’t been that much wrong with Noel’s time in Dallas. There has been one concern however, and it’s that big centers are still gobbling up the Mavs like they’re a college team.

Noel has made some incredible plays on low-post brutes so far (remember him stuffing Marc Gasol?) but take a look at some of the numbers some of the bigger guys in the league have put on the Mavs in games Noel has played in:

  • Dwight Howard on March 1: 14 points, 12 rebounds on 5-of-5 shooting
  • Zach Randolph on March 3: 24 points, 10 rebounds on 11-of-14 shooting
  • Brook Lopez on March 19: 27 points, seven rebounds on 8-of-18 shooting.
  • DeAndre Jordan on March 23: 14 points, 18 rebounds on 6-of-6 shooting.

Some caveats: these are obviously some of the better bigs in the league who have torched plenty of other teams and Noel obviously isn’t guarding or boxing out these guys for an entire game. But I also didn’t include what the Raptors bigs did on Saturday, where Jonas Valanciunas ate up the Mavs in the paint in the first quarter while Serge Ibaka was a terror all night.

Still, it’s a slightly worrying trend. Noel is listed at 6’11 but he looks so much smaller next to some of the bigger centers and forwards in the league. He’s so slight and has such a slim frame it’s easy for physical bigs to push and shove Noel out of the way so they can get where they need to go.

Jordan is a monster and fastbreak defense and positioning is disjointed, but it’s just alarming how easy he jumps through Noel like he’s not even there. This will be a huge part of his development and hopefully the Mavs can raise his strength and make him a more physical presence.

For what it’s worth, there aren’t a lot of bigs like Jordan in the league and low-post scorers are slowly becoming extinct. He won’t see this every game, but when he does, it would be nice if the Mavs and Noel are better prepared for it.

The Ugly: that knee scare

Noel’s injury history was probably the biggest knock on him when the Mavs acquired him. He tore his ACL in his left knee before he entered the NBA draft, spent a year rehabbing and then experienced some issues in his right knee before this season which kept him out for the 76ers’ first 23 games.

Then there was the knee scare earlier this month, where Noel missed three games after his left knee, the same one with the torn ACL, started swelling. Noel and the Mavs consistently said they were being extra cautious in what is a rebuilding year, but it was still hard not to freak out a little bit considering his history.

It was especially easy to get queasy when you consider what the Memphis Grizzlies are going through with Chandler Parsons and the bullet the Mavs dodged over the past summer. Every time Noel spills to the floor or walks gingerly to the bench, Mavs fans flash back to Parsons limping off the court during that Houston playoff series in 2015.

Luckily the Mavs have one of, if not the best training staffs in the NBA. Head athletic trainer Casey Smith is part of Mark Cuban’s decision-making council and he’s never steered the Mavs wrong before when it came to acquiring dudes with shaky injury histories. If Smith okay’d the moves, that should mean Noel checks out and barring catastrophe, he should be fine.

*This piece was written before Monday night’s matchup vs. Oklahoma City. All stats current through Sunday, March 26.