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. “

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.

Three things to know: The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

About that slow start in the Bay Area…

Over their last 11 games, the Golden State Warriors are 8-3 with a top-10 in the league offense and defense and a +4.5 net rating (fourth best in the league over that stretch). The latest win was Sunday’s destruction of the stumbling Timberwolves, 137-114, a game that saw the Warriors up by more than 20 in the first quarter and never truly threatened again.

“I think we’re starting to put it together and if we can keep building at this rate, you know, we’ll be poised for a run pretty soon here,” Draymond Green said.

All season long the Warriors have had Stephen Curry playing at an MVP level, carrying the team. So what has changed over the past few weeks that has the Warriors rolling? Three things.

First, Steve Kerr started staggering the rotation and separating Green’s and Curry’s minutes some, something he tried not to do much in the past. It’s one way Kerr dealt with the fact the Warriors’ bench has struggled (getting Donte DiVincenzo healthy helped as well). Curry now stays in for the entire first quarter, while Green gets his first rest about the five-minute mark, then Curry sits to start the second and Green returns to play with more of a bench unit (both stars finish the quarter together on the court).

“I’ve said for years Draymond is kind of the heartbeat of our team,” Kerr said. “He’s the guy who kind of makes everything go and he’s the motivator, he’s the bully, he protects his teammates on the floor, talks trash. But this guy is just so good at basketball.”

Second, the other way the Warriors dealt with the bench issue was Kerr scaled back the “two timelines” experiment. The idea was that the roles Otto Porter and Gary Payton Jr. filled last season could be filled by the young trio of James Wiseman, Moses Moody, and Jonathan Kuminga. That plan failed spectacularly. Wiseman is now down in the G-League, while Moody is out of the rotation. Kuminga is getting his shot — he played well against the Timberwolves — but has been up and down this season.

“I think we’ve settled into some roles, guys are comfortable now with when they’re gonna play who they’re gonna play with. So I think that’s been helpful,” Kerr said.

Third, Klay Thompson found his legs. He kept saying he needed more time, and whether it was a spark lit by Charles Barkley or Thompson getting off of social media and out of his own head, it’s worked. In his last 10 games Thompson is averaging 20.8 points a game and shooting 46.2% from 3. He is not defending like his old self (and may never again), but he’s back to being a No.2 scoring option on an elite team.

Green would throw in one more reason, the Warriors’ defense is back.

“Most importantly our defense has picked up which allows us to push the pace more,” Green said. “Like it’s one thing to push off makes, which we want to do, but when you’re pushing off a miss and getting a rebound then going, that’s tough to guard because it creates a lot of cross-matching.”

There was no magic bullet for Kerr to fire, it took a number of things to turn for the Warriors to get back to being themselves. But they have now, and the rest of the West should be worried.

2) Doncic says Antetokounmpo is “the best player in the NBA right now”

The Dallas Mavericks had no answers. Not that teams really ever do.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a force of nature Sunday and dropped 30 with 11 boards on the Mavericks, leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

After the game, Luka Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the game. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo returned the compliment.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

Antetokounmpo and Doncic are two of the guys in the early MVP conversation, along with Curry, Jayson Tatum and a few others. It turns out, those first two also have a mutual admiration society going.

3) Clippers Ivica Zubac put up a monster 31 and 29 line against Pacers

No Kawhi Leonard, no Paul George, but the Clippers picked up another win on Sunday knocking off the Pacers 114-100.

Thank Ivica Zubac, who had a monster 31-point, 20-rebound game.

After the game, Zubac was made he fouled out before he could get his 30th rebound and have a 30-30 game.

Quietly, Zubac is having a fantastic defensive season for the Clippers, but like the rest of the team his offense has been up and down as they try to adjust to ever-changing lineups. That Clipper defense locked down the Pacers in the second half, plus Indy was just off shooting 9-of-42 from 3.

Zubac found his offense, the Pacers had no answer for him, and the Clippers have a win and improved to 12-9 because of it.

Curry drains 7 3-pointers, Nets start homestand with win over Blazers

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NEW YORK — Kevin Durant scored 31 points, Seth Curry added a season-high 29 off the bench and the Brooklyn Nets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 111-94 on Sunday.

Curry was 7 for 10 on 3-pointers and had his highest point total with the Nets and the most by a Brooklyn reserve this season.

“I’ve always felt like if I get good shots I’m going to make them at a high clip,” Curry said. “Our offense was flowing pretty well. Guys found me open early on to start the game and I felt pretty good, aggressive.”

Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Nets. Ben Simmons took just three shots but had 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“Ben did a great job of getting downhill,” Curry said. “He’s a great passer (and) he knows how to find me out there on the floor.”

Jerami Grant scored 29 points for Portland. Jusuf Nurkic had 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Anfernee Simons added 15 points and Justice Winslow had 14.

The Nets have won four of their last six games, while the Trail Blazers, who are playing without Damian Lillard, have dropped five of six.

“Tough little stretch that we’re in right now,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “It is what it is. Every team goes through it.”

Brooklyn made 52.6% of its shots from the field overall, and 42.9% from 3-point range, in the second matchup between the teams in 10 days.

“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “It’s about baskets.”

With the Nets leading by four entering the fourth, Curry scored Brooklyn’s first eight points of the quarter. Royce O'Neale‘s free throw gave the Nets a 93-87 lead and following a Portland turnover, Curry made a 3 that extended the advantage to nine.

Nurkic sandwiched a hook shot and free throw around two free throws by Irving to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 98-90. However, after a timeout, Durant hit a 3 to push the lead to 101-90.

Brooklyn led 58-57 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter.

T.J. Warren targets Dec. 2 for return to court for Brooklyn Nets

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day
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T.J. Warren was a breakout star in the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers.

Warren has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

The Nets signed him this season hoping he could get healthy and provide some depth off the bench at the four. We’re about to find out if that can happen on Dec. 2, with Warren targeting his return then Toronto, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Nets have not confirmed this timeline. However, coach Jacque Vaughn has recently talked up Warren’s workouts and hinted that a return is getting close.

A healthy Warren could be a big boost for a Nets team looking for more of a spark off the bench.