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Nerlens Noel gets his prove-it season

The center will be in the spotlight this year, getting the biggest opportunity of his young career.

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The story this summer should have been the Dallas Mavericks gathering young long-term foundation pieces and locking them in for the future. The summer of rookie point guards. The summer of high flying centers.

And those were the stories. But one requires a sequel.

Over the last month, anyone remotely interested in the existence of the Mavericks has talked above, below, around and through the Nerlens Noel situation. If you’re already over it, you might want to hit mute on Mavs coverage for the next ten months. It’s simply a subject that can’t be avoided, and has to rank as a top-three priority for the front office this season. There is so much on the line this season for the Mavericks in evaluating their long-term commitment to Nerlens Noel, and there is even more on the line for the man himself.

Do you want Steven Adams or Joel Embiid?

In a league where the actual production of a player and the value of that player in the open market can be easily disproportionate, it’s not a completely insane idea for Noel’s camp to believe he deserves a top-dollar contract. Has Noel played like a max-level star to this point in his career? No. Does he have the ceiling of a max-level center? Possibly.

While an uptick in on-court production could be a selling point to the Mavericks (or any other team interested in the free agent next summer), Noel’s durability is the area in which he has the most to prove. As touched on briefly in this Mavs Moneyball Fan Post, there is a whole stable of young centers making $20+ million (see above), and all of them have proven to be healthy, durable players. And there’s a handful more that will be looking to make that money in the next few off-seasons (see below). Can Noel match that sort of durability?

As the Mavericks decide what they are comfortable offering Noel next summer, the question they may ask themselves is would we rather see 75-80 games of solid but modest growth and production, or 50-60 games of unstable star production? We could call it the Steven Adams versus Joel Embiid debate. With this much money on the line, I think the Mavs would like to see Adams.

Nerlens Noel as franchise cornerstone

Sometimes best-case/worst-case scenarios can be hard to quantify. For Noel, chemistry should be considered just as much as in-game production. Over the last 18 months there have been a lot of new, young players added to the roster. Trying to bring all of these moving pieces together may take some time. Ultimately, the relationship between Noel, Harrison Barnes, and Dennis Smith Jr. needs to be paramount. This year, with little pressure to be postseason competitive, is a perfect testing ground to see if this young core can mesh.

There’s a lot to like about how this trio can complement each other on both ends of the floor. It’s been a while since the Mavericks have had such an athletic and mobile two-way center. And combined with the speed and athleticism of Smith Jr. and Barnes’ versatile reliability, a best-case scenario feels within reach.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The other chemistry test will be with Rick Carlisle. There are few coaches in the league who possess his intelligence and ability to game plan. But it’s no secret that Carlisle also demands much of his players, and not every young gun handles those expectations well. If Noel is up to the challenge, he is a perfect fit for the Mavericks.

Assuming health, Noel’s development as an every-night core player will be the storyline to track. His per-36 numbers in 22 games with Dallas (14 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 2.7 steals) offer a glimpse of his potential, but to come out every night and take advantage of the opportunity will be his biggest test.

Those numbers have to be where his ceiling is now. And the Mavericks would happily take that all season. And even if he doesn’t match that best-case scenario this year, there are two other players he could aim to match. As mentioned earlier, Steven Adams is a young (he’s still somehow only 24), durable center, making big money, who gives the Thunder consistent production. Last season in 80 games Adams averaged 11 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal in 30 minutes per game.

The other is MFFL’s Exalted One. His time with the team was short, but his impact is a major reason the Mavs have a trophy. The moment Noel came to Dallas, the questions of whether he could become the next Tyson Chandler started. Noel has a long way to go to match TC’s leadership and basketball intelligence. But the numbers are attainable. In the title season, Chandler averaged a solid 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 1 block in 28 minutes per game (over 74 games). If Noel can match those numbers in that many games, the Mavericks should be willing to pay up.

Nerlens Noel as lost cause

If we’re comparing Noel to some of the other young big men on their way to major contracts, anything less than 65 games for Noel this season would be a worst-case scenario for him as a player. His goal should be to remove all doubt about his health. If question marks remain, he won’t be getting the offers he is looking for.

On the floor, if his production plateaus after being given more opportunity, that would also be a major letdown. He spent his time in Philadelphia last season talking about how he should be a starter. To be that player, he needs to make the most of the extra playing time.

For the Mavericks, there are two worst-case scenarios. The first is simply Noel not showing up. If he doesn’t blend well with Smith Jr. and Barnes or, more importantly, Carlisle and the culture the organization has created, that would feel like wasted time (even if they’d be lucky to find out before locking themselves in long term). No team wants locker room issues, and the Mavericks would be doing extra work to shut that down.

The other worst-case for Dallas: Nerlens Noel goes absolutely HAM this season, clicking with everyone and balling out every night, but hurt feelings from this summer linger, and he decides to take his talents elsewhere. It would be hard to swallow if they didn’t lock him down when they had the chance.

There will be plenty of opportunity for Nerlens Noel this season to silence all the doubters and to come in to his own as a core piece of a great organization. And, the Mavericks will have the upper hand next summer, being able to offer more years and more money. Now, let the experiment begin!