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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. “

Missouri’s Jontay Porter announces he will enter NBA Draft

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Jontay Porter — the younger brother of Denver’s Michael Porter Jr., who did not play all season as he recovered from back issues — was impressive as a freshman, the one season he played at Missouri. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game (mostly off the bench), showed a shooting touch from three, he plays a high IQ game, and at 6’11” he has NBA size and a strong frame.

But since then Porter has been a story of injuries. A lot of them. He did not play this past season after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee back in October. By his own admission he tried to rush back and tore the same ACL again in March.

Now, Porter is declaring he will enter the NBA Draft.

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Porter has legitimate potential as a stretch five in the NBA, but the knee injuries and questions about Porter’s athleticism (he’s not athletic by NBA standards) makes teams hesitant. That’s why Porter is projected as a second-round pick, a big man with potential but one who needs time to get healthy and develop.

A couple other draft notes:

• Charles Bassey, the 6’11” big man out of Western Kentucky, will test the draft. He is projected as a late second rounder, if drafted at all.

Mike Daum, who averaged 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds a game this past season for South Dakota State, has entered the draft and signed with Octagon Sports. He needs to impress at combines and workouts to make sure he gets drafted.

• Two European big men, Louis Olinde (6’10” out of Germany) and Aleksander Balcerowski (7’1” center from Poland) both have put their names in the NBA Draft pool. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony announced both of the Euros looking to come to the NBA.

Draymond Green dropped 26 pounds to be ready for playoff basketball

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Draymond Green was not himself this season. He averaged 7.4 points per game, the first time he was below double digits during the Warriors run, Green shot just 28.5 percent from three, and he played in just 66 games due to toe and knee injuries. Green was not an All-Star. He had a PER of 12.9, a below average number (while it’s not a stat that takes into account what Green brings, he’s long been above average at least in it). When it came time to talk Defensive Player of the Year, he got mentioned more on reputation than his in-season performance.

Playoff Green has been different: 13 points and 8.7 assists per game, his true shooting percentage is back above average (57.2) as is his PER (the three-pointers are still not falling, however). He’s a force on defense and a playmaker on offense through the first three games of the postseason.

What changed? He dropped 26 pounds in the final couple months of the season to get in playoff shape. Marcus Thompson II has a fantastic story about this at The Athletic. It started with GM Bob Myer confronting Green about his conditioning after the All-Star break.

“If we’re going to win a championship,” Myers said, “you’ve got to get in shape….”

“Yeah, I start this strenuous regimen on March 6,” he told Myers. “It’ll take me like two weeks, maybe like 10 days, to really get to where I need to be.”

Myers replied with a puzzled glance: “Wait, you already knew this?”

Green explained his whole plan. He has a nutritionist guiding his diet, his chef making his meals. The strength and conditioning team had the strategy for him dropping weight while maintaining strength. It turns out, Green knew it was time, too.

Green is the lynchpin for the Warriors in the playoffs. Stephen Curry still provides the gravity on offense and is the guy the system is built around. Kevin Durant is their best all-around player, a guy who is a walking mismatch who can get one-on-one buckets whenever he wants, defends well, and is the two-time Finals MVP for a reason. Klay Thompson is an All-NBA level two-way player.

But it’s Green’s ability to switch on defense, to cover centers bigger than him but keep them in check, and to be an outlet on offense that sets him apart. As does his intensity and energy — he is the Warriors emotional leader.

With DeMarcus Cousins out, Green’s role got even bigger.

Maybe more than all that, Green is playing for his next contract. He is a free agent in the summer of 2020, but the Warriors could extend his rookie deal this summer. Rumors of him being traded bounce around the league (with not every team interested in bringing him in, his skill set is a specific fit), and teams guessing if Green will get a max contract or not. Green wants to get paid, just as the other big three in Golden State have, but he’s the one on the bubble (Thompson is a free agent this summer but the Warriors have said they will max him out, and sources around the league expect that to happen).

Green looks himself for these playoffs, ready to go and earn a three-peat and a place in history.

Then this summer things could get interesting.

Tyronn Lue, Monty Williams reportedly to get second interviews with Lakers

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The “let’s get to know each other” first meeting is out of the way.

Now things get serious. Multiple reports have the Lakers conducting second interviews with Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams next week — serious, detailed interviews that will include GM Rob Pelinka and owner Jeanie Buss.

Lue and Williams are considered the frontrunners for the job. ESPN’s Wojnarowski also reports that Juwan Howard will get a first interview next week, although he has a lot of catching up to do in the process.

Lue is the former Laker player and Cavaliers’ coach who led that franchise and LeBron James to a title in 2016. Wojnarowski reported Lue is pushing back on the perception he is LeBron’s coach, saying he will push everyone on the roster. In Cleveland, Lue had the trust of LeBron, and that allowed the coach to challenge his star at points.

Williams is a former Pelicans’ head coach who also has a strong relationship with Anthony Davis. Williams has spent time in the Spurs front office and on the coaching bench for the Sixers and Thunder.

All three candidates have a relationship with LeBron James and would get the star’s thumbs up. Lue was LeBron’s chosen coach in Cleveland, Williams coached LeBron as part of Team USA, and Howard was a former LeBron teammate.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Westbrook vs. Lillard is best show in playoffs

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best show in playoffs; Round 3 goes to Westbrook and Thunder. Oklahoma City vs. Portland has become must-watch TV. This third-quarter sequence shows exactly why Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best drama going right now. Well, second after Game of Thrones, but best in the NBA playoffs and one you need to be watching.

Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Westbrook anticipated a Lillard layup attempt, got up, and swatted the shot back. When he landed, Westbrook looked at the crowd along the baseline and yelled something. Lillard, in turn, said something right back to Westbrook, and then the two started jawing. As they have at points throughout the series. Westbrook was making it personal, he demanded the ball on the next Thunder possession, posted up Lillard and knocked down a little turnaround jumper right over the Blazers’ guard. Westbrook then celebrated with his rock-the-baby move (the way he did this one was more shook-the-baby). After the game, Lillard said he didn’t even see it, although in the videos Lillard seems to smirk at it.

Lillard then went off scoring 23 of his 25 points in a historic, franchise-best third quarter to make it a game.

In the end, Oklahoma City got the needed win 120-108 behind 33 points ( on an efficient 11-of-22 shooting ) and 11 assists from Westbrook. Westbrook even hit the dagger three over Lillard.

The Thunder still trail in the series 2-1 and need another win on Sunday in Game 4 or they may fall too far behind to catch up.

Two keys in Game 3 led to the Thunder win.

First, Oklahoma City finally decided to be aggressive in trapping and pressuring Damian Lillard, taking the ball out of his hands early in the shot clock. At least OKC did in the first half. This has been the book on how to beat Portland in the playoffs for a couple of seasons now — make anyone other than Lillard or C.J. McCollum beat you — but OKC used it sparingly in the first couple of games. During the regular season Jusuf Nurkic became an excellent outlet for Lillard when those traps came, but he is out and now Enes Kanter has to be that man. He was not as good. Portland got away from it when Lillard got hot but the Thunder need to go back to it as often as they can.

Second, the Thunder hit their threes. Oklahoma City shot 10-of-61 from three (16.4 percent) from three in the first two games in Portland, but at home they felt comfortable and the shots fell — 15-of-29. This was the biggest difference in the game, Portland’s defense but the Thunder could not beat them from three and on Friday night OKC won that bet.

Can the Thunder sustain that at home?

Tune in for Game 4 Sunday to find out. Lillard vs. Westbrook is the best show going right now.

2) Pascal Siakam goes off for 30 points, 11 rebounds in leading Raptors to win on the road over Magic. During his pregame media availability, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked if Pascal Siakam was formally the Raptors third offensive option now.

“If he has he’s dropped down from being the 2nd option,” Nurse responded.

Siakam was option No. 1 on Friday night, scoring 30 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, and leading the way for Toronto to get a 98-93 win on the road. Siakam did it impressively, with everything from threes to postups, and plenty of attacking off the bounce, much of it against a good defender in Jonathan Isaac.

Toronto now leads the series 2-1 and if Orlando is going to have a real chance in this series it needs to win game 4 Sunday.

The Raptors needed the breakout game from Siakam because Kawhi Leonard looked human, scoring 16 points but needing 19 shots to get there (he also had 10 rebounds). Orlando geared its game to stop Leonard (who was under the weather), but the Raptors had other options in this one.

The Raptors also defended well — Evan Fournier was 1-of-12 shooting on a night the Magic as a team shot 36.2 percent and scored less than a point per possession (98.9 offensive net rating). Terrence Ross had 24 off the bench — and hit a halfcourt shot right before halftime — to keep Orlando close. The Magic better find their shooting touch before Sunday or this series will end quickly.

3) Boston has Kyrie Irving (and Jaylen Brown), Indiana can’t score consistently, and Boston is in command of series. We’ve seen this movie before. Boston went into Indiana Friday night and took control of the series going up 3-0 after a 104-96 win that followed the same formula that has worked for the first two games.

First, Kyrie Irving can get buckets whenever he wants. He had 19 points in this game, although it was Jaylen Brown’s 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting that was the dominant force. Jayson Tatum pitched in 18 points.

Second, Indiana just can’t score consistently The Pacers had 61 points in the first half, finding some offense in playing uptempo, even if that is not their style (the Pacers were 25th in the NBA in pace during the regular season, then this had been the second slowest paced playoff series so far this season). But the scoring would not last. Indiana started the third 1-of-8 from the floor and finished the quarter 5-of-21 shooting. Then down the stretch, Indiana was 1-of-7 from the floor. Without Victor Oladipo the Pacers are prone to these offensive droughts, especially against a good Celtics’ defense, and it is simply too much to overcome.

Game 4 is Sunday and maybe the Pacers extend the series to a fifth game, but we know how this movie is going to end.