Coming over from the Philadelphia Sixers in February, Nerlens Noel provided the Mavericks a strong presence down low. With his size, length and defensive stalwartness, he gave the Mavericks a legitimate center who complimented Dirk Nowitzki.
Moreover, Noel appeared to fit in well with his new city and new teammates. He told Brad Townsend of Sports day, “I love Dallas," he went onto say "In my short time here, I've really enjoyed it. With the pieces that we have, and the opportunities we'll be seeing in the near-future, I think there's a lot to be excited for."
Then this offseason happened. Noel wanted the max, the Mavs reportedly wouldn’t give him more than $17.5 million a year and the two sides found themselves in an uncomfortable stalemate for over a month. Then Noel replaced his agent and signed his one-year qualifying offer.
There is no question that Noel still wants that max deal, and believes that he deserves. Now he has a season to prove it. Noel will have to step up his game. He’s shown flashes of incredible talent in his first few years in the NBA, but he’ll need to improve several areas of his game in order to show that the contract he seeks is warranted. What are his current strengths and weaknesses, and how can he improve enough to show that he is, in fact, a max player?
Note - if videos don’t show up for your browser, we’ve included links to the examples at the end of the prior paragraph.
Known as a defensive-minded player, Noel often leverages his defensive prowess by darting into passing lanes for steals and sprinting down the other end for an easy dunk. Noel’s defense definitely helped him generate strong transition numbers this past season. He averaged 1.36 points per possession and shot 70 percent from the field when running the floor. Additionally, his long strides and speed allow him to efficiently get to the rim without being tracked down by opposition. (Link to the video here.)
Pick and Roll
Nerlens Noel is a prototypical roll man in a pickand-roll offense. Last season, Noel’s scoring efficiency ranked in the 83rd percentile in the league in this category. He shot 61 percent from the field when coming out of the ball screen action as the roller. Noel is especially good at finishing off a lob, as you can see from the Devin Harris assist below. (Link to the video here.)
If Noel could develop his shot, he would become a much harder guard for the opposition and would provide the Mavs another tool within their offense that they could leverage. This past season in Dallas, Noel ranked in the 16th percentile in the league, and he shot just 39 percent from the field on catch-and-shoot opportunities. However, these opportunities were few and far between, and he did not take many of these shots. Improvement may come down to on-court repetition and unconscious muscle memory re-patterning in order for Noel to be able to hit open looks at a more reliable rate. (Link to the video here)
As athletic as Noel is, at times he seems to be off balance when he finishes at the rim. This is especially the case when he is crashing the glass on offensive put-backs. Noel scored 30 points on 30 offensive rebounding attempts in Dallas, ranking him in the 36th percentile in the league. Take a look at how his momentum takes him slightly under the basket, causing him to miss the tip in off of Nowitzki’s missed three-point attempt. (Link to the video here)
His footwork and balance also tend to hamper his effectiveness on cuts to the basket. Similar to his offensive rebounding, Noel sometimes finds himself out of position or finishing off of the wrong foot when he cuts to the basket. In the below clip, Noel receives a nice dump off from Seth Curry but is unable to convert. This may not seem like such an egregious error, but these missed layups add up. Noel ranked in the 21st percentile in the league in scoring efficiency in this category. (Link to the video here.)
Pick and roll defender
Noel is a strong defender in pick–and-roll situations, due in part to his mobility and ability to move laterally. He also does a great job using his length to contest shots out of this action. As the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley turns the corner off of a Marc Gasol ball screen, Noel is there to provide just enough coverage to bother Conley’s pull-up finish. Noel’s ability to move his feet in order to keep Conley contained stands out the most in this situation. (Link to the video here)
With the Mavericks this season, Noel allowed just 37 percent shooting when getting switched onto the ball handler, which was stellar when compared to other big men around the league.
Noel struggled in isolation, giving up 14 points on 14 possessions. At times, Noel does not provide the resistance needed to fend off stronger more aggressive players. He seems to frequently avoid the contact that is often necessary to stop opposing players in one-on-one situations. Because of this, Noel will shy away from providing the fierce defensive pressure needed to thwart isolation situations. (Link to the video here)
Noel rated out as just an average post defender so far in Dallas, according to the numbers. He gave up 53 percent shooting from the field in these situations. Bigger, stronger players like the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan and the Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph often took advantage of Noel’s slight frame down low, as evidenced by the below clips. (Link to the video here and here)
How Noel can improve further
For many players who struggle to improve their shooting and/or finishing ability at the rim, the only thing stopping them are subconscious mental barriers. If and when these barriers are removed, traditional skill-development work generally leads to improvement, sometimes by leaps and bounds.
For Noel, identifying which thoughts, emotions, and/or negative belief systems are affecting his finishing ability and/or shooting ability on a more subconscious level could give him the chance to improve his offense. Defensively, these same sorts of performance barriers can affect a player’s ability to remain locked-in and aggressive when covering the opposition. Often, these performance blocks are created from past experiences that become etched in a player’s psyche, in turn inhibiting growth in that player’s game.
A classic example of what I’m talking about is a talented but flawed big man (who will remain unnamed) whose on-court thoughts, emotions, and/or negative belief systems grew out of a series of poor performances in high-school that became cemented at a young age. Once he found a way around these lingering doubts and belief systems, the player looked to make a huge improvement in his game and was able to increase his field goal and three-point shooting percentages by 10 percent. The player’s finishing around the rim went from missed layups to made dunks. Individual defense also improved, with blocked shots per game increasing by 67 percent from before to after addressing the mental side of the game.
For Noel, crafting an on and off-court program targeting the performance blocks held on a subconscious level could have the effect of providing the improvement that both he and the Mavericks both desire.
All statistics are courtesy of Synergy and Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of June 21, 2017.
Jake Rauchbach is the founder of The MindRight Pro Program and has coached numerous professional and collegiate basketball players. Rauchbach serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University’s men’s basketball team and provides high-performance analysis on the NBA and college basketball. You can follow him @mindrightpro.