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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. “

Draymond Green on Kevin Durant: “If he go, he go. If he stay, he stay,” focus is on title

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The conventional wisdom among front offices (and league observers) is that this summer Kevin Durant will leave the Warriors. He will go to a team — maybe the Knicks, maybe the Clippers, maybe someone else — where he is the dominant force to help grow his legacy. The Warriors of the last three years, the Everest nobody else in the NBA has been able to climb, will be no more.

Just don’t think that is bothering the Warriors.

Not according to Draymond Green, who told Sam Amick of The Athletic that the incident he had with KD early in the season is long forgotten and the team just wants another ring and parade.

“It’s not important,” he said of the Durant dynamic. “We’re not about to sit around and walk around, or carry something around, that happened in November.”

Free agency questions be damned.

“He’s part of it right now,” Green said about Durant. “Whatever happens this summer happens. Whatever the hell he do, he does. If he go, he go. If he stay, he stay. But while he’s here, we’re going to win another championship. It’s just that simple. Nothing else matters.”

The Warriors have shown that attitude recently when they rolled Denver and Oklahoma City, and beat surging Houston without Kevin Durant. Golden State can still flip the switch. They can also still sleepwalk through games (which is why the Nuggets have caught them in the standings).

Internally, the buzz has been the Warriors expect they may well lose Durant. They will have a strong pitch of (likely) having won three straight titles, they can offer more money and guaranteed years than any other team, and they will be opening a new arena in San Francisco proper (close to Durant’s home in the area). That may not be enough, but it has to be a tempting offer.

The idea this could be the last run of this version of the Warriors is fueling the team. It will make them that much harder to knock off.

If KD leaves, then the Warriors will have to return to a lineup like the one that won a title before Durant arrived. Life is so hard for them. (Read that last sentence in a sarcastic voice.)

Kobe on Kuzma, Ingram, Ball: “Are the three of them better than Anthony Davis? No!”

Associated Press
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There are Lakers fans that balked at the idea the franchise would trade their best three young players — Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball — for Anthony Davis. Those fans thought that (plus first round picks and salary filler) was too steep a price.

Kobe Bryant disagrees.

Kobe is on a global tour (he was just in China to help with the draw for the FIBA World Cup) and there spoke with the Spanish language sports powerhouse AS.com, and when asked about the possible trade for Davis and the impact on the team, Kobe said this (hat tip Reddit user hoodiefern for posting and translating):

“Kuzma, Lonzo, Ingram… are the three of them better than Anthony Davis? No! Ciao! Bye! Anthony Davis is one of the best players in the world. Not currently, in history. What are we talking about? If you can trade for Anthony Davis, you do it. If not, alright. We have three players who are very young and work hard. They’re smart and they have to develop. But if you can trade for Anthony Davis… yes!”

He’s right.

In the NBA, talent wins and Davis is as talented a player as the league has when unleashed (he has been reined in with the Pelicans since the trade deadline). Put Davis next to LeBron James and the Lakers can quickly become a genuine threat in the West. Whether New Orleans is willing to play along is another question, which is why the Lakers also are focused on free agency.

Elite talent alone is not enough — a lesson the Lakers brass did not take to heart this season. Stars such as LeBron and Davis (or Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, etc.) can thrive in any system because of their talent, but around them needs to be a system and role players picked to fit said system. Want to run a lot of pick-and-roll and/or isolations? Better get shooters who can knock down kick-out passes. Want to play uptempo? Better get athletes who thrive in that system, and shooters. Back in Kobe’s era, the Lakers were a triangle team but the non-stars fit the system and were good shooters of the era (think Derek Fisher, a guard who fit the triangle well but did not thrive in other systems).

Kobe gets that, but he knows the hardest part of the equation to get is the elite talent because there simply isn’t much of it.

The Lakers should be willing to trade their young players for a talent upgrade, but beyond that they still need an identity and players who fit whatever that identity/system is. Oh, and they need shooters.

 

 

Grizzlies: C.J. Miles likely out rest of season

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Memphis Grizzlies guard/forward C.J. Miles is expected to miss the remainder of the season after injuring his left foot over the weekend.

Miles left a 135-128 loss to the Washington Wizards on Saturday due to left foot soreness. The Grizzlies announced Tuesday that an MRI revealed a stress reaction.

The 6-foot-6 Miles appeared in 53 games this season for the Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors. The Grizzlies acquired him from Toronto in the Marc Gasol trade Feb. 7.

Miles came off the bench in 13 games with the Grizzlies and averaged 9.3 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 22.6 minutes.

Report: Timberwolves fan called Blake Griffin ‘boy’

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With his recent outburst at hecklers in Utah, Russell Westbrook ignited a long-overdue discussion of how fans interact with players during games. The Jazz even recently banned a fan who repeatedly called Westbrook “boy” last year.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t an isolated case of that racist language being used toward a player.

Pistons Blake Griffin confronted a fan in Minnesota in December.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

The fan was seemingly ejected. The Timberwolves didn’t respond to questions whether he faced additional punishment.

I’m all for good-natured heckling. Racist taunts are completely unacceptable – and maybe still more common than we realized. Because Griffin didn’t get as enraged as Westbrook on video, this got swept under the rug.

It shouldn’t be Griffin’s responsibility to fix this. Teams must do a better job holding accountable fans who cross the line.