Nerlens Noel is a great addition to the Mavericks. That’s what we thought when Dallas traded for him in February. Now that he’s been here for a month, it appears that our groupthink was actually right. (It’s fun when that happens, isn’t it?) In a recent post, my colleague Josh Bowe took a look at how Noel is playing as a whole, but I wanted to focus on his on-court relationships to see how he is being set up to succeed in Dallas.
At 22 years old, Noel is already a screen-setting, rim-rolling, lob-dunking, defensive-minded, shot-altering, rebound-grabbing machine. While he has mostly come off the bench in Dallas, he usually enters the game fairly early, subbing in when Dirk Nowitzki takes his requisite rest midway through the first quarter. This has allowed him to see a significant amount of time playing with Yogi Ferrell, who has been the team’s starting point guard for much of the time Noel has been in Dallas. However, he has also played considerable minutes with the second unit and its point guard, J.J. Barea. It’s the pairing with Barea, especially in the pick-and-roll, that is working well for the Mavs, in particular because it regularly causes defenses to scramble or over-commit.
“This is an example of a guy whose screens and rolls cause a problem,” head coach Rick Carlisle said of Noel recently. “And Barea, he has a real great sense for using screens and he can score.”
As Carlisle noted, Noel vehemently sets screens and rolls hard to the rim. His movement off the ball is an important factor for the Mavs’ offense, and they look to create off of it regularly. While off-ball, Noel opens up the court for his teammates and allows them to find him for either a cut down the lane or a step-out jumper, something he’s shown the ability to do of late. He’s most effective when he’s rolling to the rim. Noel has an effective field goal percentage of 59.1 as the roll man, and that’s why Barea’s ability to find him matters so much.
“It’s not an accident that we’ve been putting [Barea] and Nerlens in together,” Carlisle said. “I don’t know that that’s always going to be the case. ... But J.J.’s ability to see those things and throw lobs and deliver the ball to a roller is an important part of our game.”
Take a look at a couple of plays where Barea and Noel work the pick and roll together:
Noel’s ability to roll is really opened up by the Mavs’ spacing. In this play, he is flanked by three of shooters: Barea, Devin Harris, and Nicolas Brussino. Once Noel’s man leaves to check Barea after the screen, it allows Noel to operate in space as he rolls almost completely unguarded to the rim. Other defenders are hesitant to help because of the the shooters the Mavs have around the perimeter.
Here, Noel’s defender, Steven Adams, closes out to trap Barea because of his shooting ability. This allows Noel to sneak behind him and get to the rim. While the Thunder have two defenders in the area, they are hesitant to collapse on Noel instantly because of the spacing provided by Harrison Barnes and Dorian Finney-Smith. While they eventually converge on Noel when Barea threads the ball to him, Noel is able to finish in traffic.
Another aspect of this play is how open both Barnes and Finney-Smith are. Barea also drifts open after passing the ball to Noel, because Russell Westbrook turns to focus on the action in the middle. The gravity of Noel rolling to the rim creates opportunities for his teammates as defenses are forced to collapse or give up an easy bucket.
These are just some examples of how Noel is working with and reacting to his teammates, and in particular Barea. However, Noel is quick to admit that they are still getting to know each other’s tendencies. “I’m still learning about them, they’re still learning about me and the spots I’m used to seeing the ball in,” Noel said. “It’s still all a work in progress, but I like where we’re at now especially [with] J.J. and Devin. Yogi is getting better. [I’m] just staying active, screening the ball, trying to create for them and at the same time trying to create for me.”
It’s working well so far. When Barea and Noel are paired together, the Mavericks score 1.158 points per possession compared to 1.064 when they are off, per nbawowy.com. With Harris and Noel on the floor, Dallas scores 1.193 PPP and a plus-17 rating. When all three of them are in the game, the Mavs drop a whopping 1.260 PPP. That’s remarkable. For context, the league average this year is 1.087, per basketballreference.com.
While the PPP stats aren’t so eye-popping when Noel is paired with the Mavs’ two younger guards, they still do just fine. When Noel plays with Ferrell, Dallas averages 1.069 PPP. Noel didn’t mention Seth Curry when I asked him about his comfort level working with the guards, but the Mavs score an acceptable 1.048 PPP with the two of them on the floor.
Noel’s ability to work with the guards to run the pick and roll at a high level has greatly benefited the team. Some might even feel compelled to draw comparisons to a former Mavs’ center who was known to set screens and rim-roll. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves—comparisons to an NBA champion center should be taken with a grain of salt. He’s not Tyson Chandler (at least not yet), but there’s no doubt that Noel possesses the skills to be successful in Dallas, especially with teammates helping him reach his full potential.