What does Nerlens Noel bring to the Dallas Mavericks?

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The Dallas Mavericks have been looking for a star center for a little over 5 years now, and they seem to have a long-term fit at the position after trading a top-18 protected 1st round pick, Andrew Bogut, and Justin Anderson to the Philadelphia 76ers for 22-year-old Nerlens Noel. You’ve definitely seen analysis on the trade by now, so we wanted to breakdown some film and see what Nerlens Noel can potentially bring to the Dallas Mavericks.

First of all, Noel’s shot has been a major work in progress. The Sixers’ player development staff has focused time on remaking it going back all the way to his rookie season, when he was rehabbing his torn ACL. Slowly, he is improving. Nerlens has only taken 30 shots from midrange this season but has hit a respectable 40% of them. He shouldn’t be expected to score from anywhere past 8’ that often – luckily Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrell, and Dirk Nowitzki can be. Closer to the basket, however, Noel has made some giant strides in his shot selection; 63.4% of his attempted field goals are within 3 feet of the hoop, which is the highest mark of his career, and far beyond either of his first two seasons. As such, this has led to Noel shooting a career best 61.1% from the field. If his leap in free throw accuracy, currently at 68.3% for the season, isn’t merely a fluke, then Noel has unquestionably developed into a legitimate offensive weapon.

A brief glance at Noel’s advanced stats might seem worrisome, as it would appear that he has faced regression on the defensive end, but that would be rather disingenuous once some context is provided. During his rookie season, Noel played at his natural position of center for the entire year, and was able to accordingly wreak havoc. The very next season, he shared the court with Okafor, whose game did not fit with Noel’s, and played 35% of his minutes at the four (according to basketball-reference). This season, after coming back from a minor knee surgery, he had to play off the bench behind Joel Embiid.

It’s not all bad, however. Despite only playing 19 minutes a game, Noel’s Player Impact Estimate sits at 12.9, giving him the second highest impact of any Sixer thus far, putting him behind only Embiid. On top of that, he is one of only a few players to have a Defensive Box Plus-Minus over 3.0 in each of the last three seasons. Noel’s block and steal rates also remain high, which indicates that he’s still playing with great energy. One thing that he may need to work on, however, is his rebounding. I would hesitate before classifying Noel as a poor rebounder, but this season he has grabbed only 14.1% of the rebounds available on the court when he’s played. Compared to other high-profile big men in the league, Noel definitely stands to improve in that department. By my count through nbastuffer.com, there have been 18 players this season with a total rebounding percentage greater than 19, who have played enough minutes to have earned some statistical merit. Still, for a team as starved on the glass as the Mavericks, Noel can definitely do his part in attacking the boards, and we might expect to see his numbers tick upwards.

Disruptive Defender

via Rohan Bhatt

Of the top 50 players in terms of deflections per game, Noel ranks at number thirty. Of that list he is in a three-way tie for the youngest and plays the least minutes per game out of them.
During the Mavericks 4-game winning streak in January, Yogi Ferrell showed that the value of a deflection can be anything from a trailing three to an open basket for your teammate on the other end. Do not underestimate the value of that skill when in the hands of an an athletic, shot-blocking big. Every time an opponent dribbles into the paint and sees Noel on the inside, he is conscious of that threat, regardless of Noel being undersized at the 5. Statistics aside, Nerlens plays defense like someone who knows what he is looking out for. If an opponent’s guard weaves into the lane and drops a pass to his big on the opposite block from Noel, Nerlens follows and contests faster than his teammates. If he accidentally pulls himself out too high on a screen, his agility allows him go for the chasedown block. If a guard is headed towards the basket and he can get in the way, he is able to contest well while standing his ground.

“Verticality is kind of a fuzzy rule, but basically if a big jumps with his arms extended straight up, he’s entitled to his ground. So I tend to jump straight up instead of going for the ball, because I know that will alter their shot.” -Tyson Chandler

In this article for “The Players Tribune”, Tyson describes two schools of interior defense: timing and verticality. Nerlens Noel has a knack for recognizing when he has to go straight up and when he can push for a deflection. This makes him extremely proficient at bothering his assignment on defense and makes his opponent have to deal with his length despite his lack of size. This is a promising part of Noel’s repertoire, because it is so rare that a big man can be effective with both.

via Rohan Bhatt

For a face up big, Noel really likes the hook shot when he takes his man off of the right block and shoots with the off-hand. I can’t say he will be depended upon to score from the post consistently because developing a good low-post game in the NBA is and has always been extremely difficult and time-consuming. What fans can expect from Noel in this regard is for him to be a lob threat. To put this in perspective, only 33% of his baskets this year have come unassisted. He does seem cognizant his limits on offense and routinely beats his guards down the floor, so it’s not all bad here.

The Pick & Roll

via The Official Youtube Channel of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Noel’s clear and present potential as a pick-and-roll threat is best highlighted by examples from the year that the Sixers brought in Ish Smith. Smith is probably the best teammate Noel has ever had at running the pick and roll, and Noel’s agility allows him to turn on a dime to get to the basket, leaving his defender in the rearview. Athletically, his jumping ability combined with his height gives him the potential to do damage inside if he isn’t pushed out of the paint. I’m also looking forward to seeing his relationship with the Mavs’ young guards Yogi Ferrell & Seth Curry develop. Dallas likes to use a variety of on and off ball screens, sometimes separately and occasionally simultaneously. I expect those two young guards to benefit greatly from the space that they’ll have when Noel rolls to the basket. The Mavericks new center boasts a career-high 1.03 AST/TO ratio, averaging around 1.7 assists a game, which indicates that Nerlens is also alright at passing to teammates in the lane. I would describe his skill in this area as both situational and underrated.


The statistics speak for themselves:
2015-16: 25th in Offensive Rebound %, 14th in Defensive Rebound %, 26th Rebound % in the NBA
2016-17 Pre-ASB: 30th in Offensive Rebound %, 8th in Defensive Rebound %, Lowest Rebound % in the NBA

via Rohan Bhatt

In this case, I believe it is unfair to put the onus on Dwight Powell or Salah Mejri.  To some extent, it is also unfair to ask for production like that from Noel. Despite his being lean for his position he has shown the ability to occasionally rebound over bigger guys like Dewayne Dedmon and Andre Drummond. The Dallas roster now has 5 players who are at least 6’11” on it. 4 of those guys are actually in the rotation: Dirk, Dwight, Nerlens, and Salah. 3 of them have long wingspans and 2 of them are athletic but undersized. The variety in length and athleticism that Dallas now has in the frontcourt is likely going to pay off in a few more second chance points and defensive rebounds. I fully expect Wesley Matthews and Seth Curry to be the beneficiaries of Noel’s peskiness and rim-running, as he does both better than nearly anyone else on the Dallas roster.

Finally, if you were to ask me what Nerlens Noel’s biggest challenge will be, I’d point you towards the Mavericks’ unique defensive scheme. Foul trouble is usually a well-founded concern that comes with an increased role for defenders who have active hands on defense, and Nerlens is certainly under threat of that from what we’ve seen in his 5 games in Dallas. His disruptive defense and agility lends to the idea that he is an underrated help defender. and its presence in his repertoire makes me sure that he can learn to thrive in Coach Hunt’s system.

“When you have a group of guys that can switch, that can all defend the post, that are pretty good on the perimeter defensively, it’s going to make your offense so much better. Because now, when (Warriors forward) Draymond Green is defending a guy in the post and he finds a way to get a stop and a rebound, now he’s pushing the basketball, and now those great shooters are free without the ball to get open shots.” – Mavericks’ Assistant Coach/Defensive Coordinator Melvin Hunt

Nerlens Noel will debut in a Mavericks jersey at home tonight at 7:30 PM CT against a hungry New Orleans team led by DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Watch on Fox Sports Southwest

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Great article! Love the videos – I’m so fudgin hype for Nerlens and what he brings to the MAVS BABY!!!!

  2. “Of the top 50 players in terms of deflections per game, Noel ranks at number thirty.”

    Per minute he ranks number 1 in the NBA.

    1. I didnt want to use the per min stat because Noel averaged less than 20 mpg in Philly this season, but damn is he a disruptive defender. He just has a knack for timing and is always looking for an opportunity to get his hands on the ball.

  3. I must say you have high quality articles here.

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