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Nerlens Noel has skills but no margin for error

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After a three-month absence, Noel still appears to be in Rick Carlisle’s doghouse.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With five minutes to go in the second quarter against the Houston Rockets Sunday night, Doug McDermott tossed a pass to Nerlens Noel, who caught the ball past the three-point line. McDermott ran down to set a screen for Kyle Collinsworth in the corner, but slipped it as soon as the defenders miscommunicated the action. Noel, noticing the defensive misstep as well, took one dribble and fired a left-handed pass to the cutting McDermott for the easy bucket.

It’s not a play Noel makes often, but it’s one that encapsulates his skillset and that makes his tenure as a Maverick all the more confusing.

Noel had a slow start in his first three games returning from injury, whether that was due to rust or the team working him back slowly. He averaged only three points and six rebounds in about 16 minutes of play. However, in the two games against the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets (Noel sat out against the Memphis Grizzlies), he averaged nine points and 12 rebounds in 20 minutes per game.

The confusion that clouded Noel’s season seemed to temporarily dissipate with his thumb injury, but in Sunday’s game against the Rockets, it resurfaced. Noel was on his way to a productive game, scoring 10 points, grabbing nine rebounds and sparking a second quarter run with his energy and activity.

Take this sequence for example. Not many bigs can fire a one-handed pass off the dribble in one motion:

Forty seconds later, Noel again demonstrates the skills that have made teams fawn over him since his Kentucky days. He uses his exceptionally quick hands to poke the ball free from the pick-and-roll ball handler, then gathers the ball and initiates a two-on-one fast break that results in an electrifying finish.

Watch the highlights, and check the box score from that game. Noel was on his way to a double-double and looked active and engaged. Why did he only play 15 minutes?

After the game Rick Carlisle told reporters, “I thought he blew a couple of plays out of timeouts that he shouldn’t have.”

Look, I get it. Noel goes by the beat of a different drum than Carlisle, and that frustrates him. But Noel put up a near double-double in only 15 minutes and ignited a key run for the team in an otherwise brutal performance, and this is what Carlisle says?

I decided to go back and try to find the plays Carlisle briefly mentioned post game to understand the severity of Noel’s mistakes.

Immediately after the fast-break dunk shown above, the Rockets called a timeout. This is the first instance where Noel is forced to defend an after-timeout play, or “ATO.”

At first glance, it looks like Collinsworth simply gets beat by Eric Gordon, but there’s a few things going on here. If I had to guess what Carlisle is thinking, I’d wonder why Noel was darting toward Clint Capela, who is shooting a whole two percent of his field goal attempts 10-16 feet from the basket, when the action was moving toward the basket.

This isn’t all on Noel, though. Dennis Smith Jr. could have easily cut off the penetration, or McDermott should have slid over on the backside. But it’s clear Noel’s margin for error is razor thin, and plays like this don’t help.

One other instance that Carlisle could have been referring to occurred around the 3:40 mark in the third quarter. As Gordon receives the handoff, Noel shows hard to cut him off but fails to corral the ball handler entirely. Gordon splits the defense, finishes at the rim and gets the foul call.

Noel’s blunders can be viewed in two lights. He could simply be over aggressive, a trait many 24 year olds possess, but is easily correctable. He could also have a lack of awareness, not understanding how his actions impact his team’s defense. It’s becoming increasingly clear Carlisle sees Noel in the latter.

It’s frustrating to see a 24-year-old center with gobs of potential on such a short leash. Are Noel’s mistakes so egregious that he needs to be pulled in a blowout when he’s playing well, all things considered? At the same time, Carlisle is also rolling out lineups with sophomores, rookies, and undrafted G-League call ups. There’s a middle ground between Noel being coachable and Carlisle showing grace, but the two parties clearly aren’t reaching it.

Noel has 15 games until he’s an unrestricted free agent. At this point there might be more bewilderment before there is clarity.