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After pre-draft hype and lost contract opportunity, Nerlens Noel building himself back up with Thunder

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Nerlens Noel ranked No. 1 in his high school class. After his lone season at Kentucky, I placed him atop my 2013 NBA draft board. Noel, based on circumstantial evidence, had the logo of the Cavaliers – who had the No. 1 pick – sewn into his draft-night jacket. He made the All-Rookie first team. After his rookie-scale contract, the Mavericks reportedly offered him a four-year, $70 million deal. Multiple advanced statistics peg his production this season as elite.

Also: Nerlens Noel is on his third team in four years. He’s a backup averaging just 14 minutes per game and earning a minimum salary.

Is Noel on or off track?

“I feel like I’m at a really good point in my career, in my life, my mindset, my mentality,” Noel said. “And I’m not slowing down.”

In his first season with the Thunder, Noel is quietly making good on the promise he showed entering the league. But this has come only in a limited role and only after his stock hit rock bottom.

Noel entered the NBA amid disappointment. He slipped to No. 6 in the draft and missed his first season with the 76ers due to injury. While out, he racked up several fines for tardiness and other issues. Philadelphia then drafted Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor and wisely chose Embiid as the center to build around. But it took a while – and plenty of frustration – until the 76ers unloaded Noel. In the meantime, his reputation tumbled.

Philadelphia finally sent Noel to Dallas just before the 2017 trade deadline. Noel performed well enough to draw a reported four-year, $70 million offer from the Mavericks as a restricted free agent that summer. But when he rejected the deal, Dallas never made him another offer. Noel accepted his qualifying offer, and everything went sideways between him and the Mavericks last season.

They questioned his work ethic. Noel eating a hot dog was treated as a major incident. He missed the final five games of the season due to suspension for a drug violation (almost certainly marijuana).

Instead of earning a $17.5 million annual salary, Noel made just $4,187,599* last season and is making just $1,757,429 this season.

*Noel’s qualifying offer would have been $5,848,910 – $1,661,311 higher than his actual qualifying offer – if he started just one more game during his first season in Dallas. He initially came off the bench after the trade, but he worked his way into the starting lineup, starting 11 of his final 12 games that season. Curiously, he came off the bench for one game against the Bucks in that span. “I have no comment on that,” Noel said.

Why didn’t Noel just take the large contract offer from the Mavericks?

“I just wanted to maximize myself with no restrictions, go out there and show why I feel like I’m the player that I am and just make smart decisions,” said Noel, who repeatedly praised Dallas and Coach Rick Carlisle. “Regardless, the past is the past. I’m just really looking forward to the future and just putting myself in the right position with people that want me to succeed.”

Noel says he has that in Oklahoma City, but he’s also playing even less than he did with the Mavericks last season. In a career-low 14.0 minutes per game, Noel is averaging 5.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. That’s why he hasn’t drawn more attention for what might be his breakout season.

Playing-time-agnostic advanced stats show someone having a heck of a year. Noel is among the league leaders in PER (25.0), box plus/minus (+6.8) and win shares per 48 minutes (.300).

In fact, Noel’s win shares per 48 minutes rates as one of the best marks of all-time. He’s sandwiched between two Michael Jordan and two LeBron James seasons. Here’s the full win-shares-per-48-minutes leaderboard (must qualify for minutes per game leaderboard):

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This is not to suggest Noel is as good as the all-time greats listed here. He’s obviously not. And though 309 minutes is a meaningful sample, it’s hardly conclusive.

But maybe Noel deserves a second look.

Noel is a heck of a defensive disruptor. He’s quick and bouncy, and when he’s active, he covers a lot of ground. He generates so many steals and blocks.

The 6-foot-11 Noel is posting a steal percentage this season (3.4%) higher than any 6-foot-10-or-taller rotation regular has ever has in a full season. His block percentage (7.8%) ranks fourth among rotation regulars this season, behind only Mitchell Robinson, Myles Turner, Hassan Whiteside, JaVale McGee.

No rotation regular has ever matched the combination of Noel’s steal percentage (3.4%) and block percentage (7.8%) over a full season. Only David Robinson – 3.1%, 7.4% in 1992 – has come particularly close.

Noel might gamble too much chasing steals and blocks. “That could be better,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. But Noel has the athleticism to wreak havoc. And it seems Noel is striking enough of a balance. Oklahoma City is allowing 2.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Noel on the court than when he’s off.

On the other end, Noel is excellent finisher, shooting 75% in the restricted area. Playing with downhill point guards Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook, Noel can build a head of steam toward the rim in the pick-and-roll, as the opposing big often must help contain the point guard. The guards’ driving attracting help defenders also frees Noel to crash the offensive glass like never before. With his ability to finish above the rim, that makes him so dangerous.

There’s probably a ceiling on Noel’s contributions with the Thunder. Steven Adams is their established starting center and locked up two seasons after this.

But Noel, still just 24, can become an unrestricted free agent next summer by declining his minimum-salary player option. Though it’s a tough market for centers, Noel has the mobility to thrive defensively in the modern NBA. In a spread offensive system, there’d be a lot of space for him to catch lobs and tip-in offensive rebounds.

It’s too early to declare Noel has turned a corner, but it’s time to acknowledge he might have.

“I’ve always felt like, in the right position, I could do this,” Noel said. “…I think I’m in the right position. “

Watch Kobe Bryant memorial live stream (video)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Thousands of mourners will gather in Staples Center on Monday to say farewell to Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

The basketball superstar and his 13-year-old daughter will be honored in a public memorial at the arena where Bryant played for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Kobe and Gianna Bryant died along with seven others on Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash.

The Celebration of Life will feature speakers reflecting on Kobe Bryant’s impact on his sport and the world, along with music and retrospectives on Bryant’s on-court achievements. Bryant became active in film, television and writing after he retired from basketball in 2016.

Bryant’s family, dozens of sports greats and many major figures in Bryant’s public life are expected to attend.

Staples Center is sold out for the memorial. The money made from ticket sales will be given to the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation, which supports youth sports programs in underserved communities and teaches sports to girls and women.

Bryant played his entire 20-year NBA career with the Lakers, including the final 17 seasons at Staples Center, which opened in 1999. The five-time NBA champion’s two retired jersey numbers – 8 and 24 – hang high above the arena where he became the third-leading scorer in league history until Lakers star LeBron James passed him on the night before Bryant’s death.

Bryant’s death caused an outpouring of grief across Los Angeles, where he remained the city’s most popular athlete into retirement. Dozens of public memorials and murals have been installed around the sprawling metropolis, and thousands of fans gathered daily outside Staples Center to commiserate after the crash.

Symbolic meanings will run throughout the ceremony, which will be held on a 24-foot-by-24-foot stage. Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife and Gianna’s mother, chose Feb. 24 as the date in honor of the uniform numbers of Kobe and Gianna, who wore No. 2 on her youth basketball teams.

A private funeral was held for Kobe and Gianna Bryant in Orange County on Feb. 7.

Lakers’ Rajon Rondo throws dead ball into air, hits Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in head

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What an unfortunate encapsulation of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s time with the Lakers.

At least Rajon Rondo, beyond this gaffe, did plenty to help the Lakers beat the Celtics.

Bucks’ minor-league coach goes on epic rant, calls ref ‘f—ing clown’ (video)

Bucks' minor-league affiliate Wisconsin Herd vs. Pistons minor-league affiliate Grand Rapids Drive
Mike E. Roemer/NBAE via Getty Images
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After coaching the Wisconsin Herd (Bucks’ minor-league affiliate) to a loss to the Grand Rapids Drive (Pistons’ minor-league affiliate), Chase Buford – son of Spurs CEO R.C. Buford – had a normal one.

Ryan Rodig of WFRV-TV:

Buford:

The officiating definitely went right for Grand Rapids. That was as unprofessional as an officiating performance. I hope you tweet this out and tag the league, because that was embarrassing. Matt Rafferty is a f—ing clown. That being said, we have to be so much better at the end of games. We can’t blow a 21-point lead with 12 minutes to go. However bad and biased and unfair and illegal and cheating the referees are, we have to be better at closing games. And so that’s the way I feel.

Herd:

The words are amazing: “f—ing clown,” “illegal,” “cheating.”

But the hair really completes the whole unhinged motif.

Mavericks protesting loss to Hawks

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was irate after his team’s loss to the Hawks on Saturday.

He’s putting his money where his Twitter fingers are.

Dallas is protesting the game, according to the Last Two Minute Report. That requires posting a $10,000 fee to be refunded only if the challenge prevails.

The contentious play occurred in the final 10 seconds. Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith was called for goaltending Trae Young‘s shot. The play was reviewed and ruled a clean block. However, officials determined the whistle was therefore inadvertent and blew while John Collins was in his shooting motion on a successful putback attempt. So, Collins’ basket counted.

The Mavericks are claiming officials misapplied the rules – a key distinction for a protest. A simple missed call won’t get it done.

Protests rarely succeed. This one probably won’t.

But I think Dallas has a chance. The whistle wasn’t inadvertent. It was intentional. It was for a wrong call. But it was intentional.

Even if the challenge is successful and the Mavericks get their desired jump ball in a re-do, they’d still be trailing by two in the final seconds. They’d still be underdogs.

On the other hand, odds still strongly favor Cuban getting fined… eventually.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

The NBA plans to await commissioner Adam Silver’s ruling on a Dallas Mavericks game protest before leveling possible discipline on owner Mark Cuban for his behavior during and after the Mavericks’ loss to Atlanta on Saturday night.