To put it lightly, it’s been a less than idyllic start to Nerlens Noel’s career.
After enduring three-plus difficult years with the Philadelphia 76ers, Noel was unceremoniously deemed as surplus in the process and got traded to Dallas, where he’s dealt with injury and controversy since early 2017. But today, Noel isn’t worried about all that anymore. He’s now sharply focused on what’s ahead with the Oklahoma City Thunder — the franchise that courted the talented shot-blocker as soon as the clock struck midnight on July 1.
“I really think it’s a great opportunity,” Noel said during a Las Vegas Summer League scrum. “I think it’s a great fit for myself and the organization. With the athleticism and the pieces that they have now, I think I can really come and make a significant difference to the speed of the game.
“It’s really been a great last few days, going to OKC, signing and just feeling very welcome from the whole organization — that really means a lot.”
Punctuated by the all-important re-signing of marquee free agent Paul George, the Thunder have quietly put together an offseason worth buzzing about. The addition of Noel — plus Dennis Schröder and the subtraction of Carmelo Anthony — has the persistent Thunder right on the cusp of the conference’s elite conversation once again. While Noel made the slightly debatable decision last summer to take the qualifying offer over the Mavericks’ alleged contract worth four years and $70 million, he’s surely landed on his feet now.
From a hotdog-related benching and a late-season suspension to being chased down by two perennial All-Stars, Noel is more than satisfied with his new situation.
“[Westbrook and George] called the night of free agency when I was meeting with coach Billy [Donovan],” Noel said. “They told me, let’s get it done and that we want to do some special things this year. I definitely felt where they were coming from. I gave it a little thought and with as much love as they showed, it became an easy decision.”
The 6-foot-11 big man hasn’t played more than 60 games since 2015-16, but his two initial forays into professional basketball were worth writing home about. During his sophomore campaign with the 76ers, Noel averaged 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per game on 52.1 percent from the floor. And although Joel Embiid and, for a moment, Jahlil Okafor eventually won out in the Nerlens-defined “logjam,” Noel could provide the rim-protecting edge that the Thunder have missed since trading Serge Ibaka in 2016.
In 2017-18, Noel put up the worst numbers of his young career, tallying just 4.4 points and 5.6 rebounds over a paltry 15.7 minutes per game. Combined with surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb in December, Noel would miss 42 consecutive games and then struggle to rejoin head coach Rick Carlisle’s rotation. Of course, Noel is only 24 years old and still has loads of potential, particularly so when placed side-by-side with this set of future Hall of Famers.
Between his rookie season and today, Noel’s teams recorded a cumulative record of 56-108, a dismal winning percentage of 34.1. Additionally, that’s not even counting the entire campaign Noel lost after he was drafted in 2013-14 due to surgery — that year, the 76ers went 19-63.
Needless to say, Noel is just happy to be on a team with high expectations at long last.
“This is something I’ve been really wanting my whole life, just to be on a talented team that can really complement my skill set and really show what I’m really about and go out on the court and play my game with no hesitation,” Noel added. “Coach Billy has given me the utmost confidence since I’ve been talking to him day-by-day.
“Just go out there and play your game. There’s nothing in it besides basketball and just being yourself — I felt very accepted.”
The starting center position in Oklahoma City has been long inhabited by Steven Adams, so Noel will likely continue to come off the bench. But beyond the Thunder’s relatively thin frontcourt — the two centers are joined only by Patrick Patterson and the recently re-signed Jerami Grant — the current depth chart means that Noel will be paired frequently with the speedy services of Schröder.
Aside from Michael Carter-Williams (15 PPG, 7.4 APG) in 2014-15 for 41 games, Noel has rotated through a slew of mid-level point guards. Over his four NBA seasons, a staggering 78.6 percent of his field goal attempts were between 0-10 feet. Even more, his combined career percentage on shots from 10 feet and beyond comes in at just 27.4. Generally speaking, Noel will regularly profit when he’s aided by a guard that’ll best position him for high percentage shot attempts. T.J. McConnell, Yogi Ferrell — both of whom have carved out solid professional roles despite going undrafted — and Dennis Smith Jr. have shown that playmaking ability at times, but Schröder may be another beast altogether.
Schröder’s assist rate in 2017-18 was among the league’s best at 35.2 percent — a mark that only trailed Ben Simmons, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, John Wall, J.J. Barea, LeBron James, James Harden and, naturally, Russell Westbrook. Even for an Atlanta Hawks team that ranked toward the bottom in most traditional categories, Schröder was an impactful game-changer more often than not — a factor that will definitely benefit Noel moving ahead.
Still, it’s not just the big names that Noel is eager to do battle alongside.
“It’s rejuvenating — I’ve been just working all summer trying to get my mind right for whatever situation I come into,” Noel said. “Thank God it’s the OKC Thunder. They got a great group of guys from Westbrook to PG leading the team to all these young guys out here — Hami [Diallo], from Kentucky, [Terrance] Ferguson — really some great pieces that can come up that they already have.
“It’s really a complete team that is really going to do some special things this year.”
In a Western Conference arms race that’s seen James move from Cleveland to Los Angeles, the Spurs cash out for a new superstar and DeMarcus Cousins join the virtually unbeatable juggernaut in Golden State, the Thunder’s offseason moves, albeit on a smaller scale, have flown under the radar. For a franchise that ranked first in blocks (9.1) and 11th in steals (5.0) per game, plus 10th in defensive rating (104.6), Noel should do nothing but bolster those strengths. On a two-year deal worth only the veteran minimum — Noel has a player option for 2019-20 — the center could easily become one of the NBA’s best bargains this season.
Ultimately, this is still a case of a player betting on himself — for Noel, it’s certainly not the first time he’s been willing to do that either. But after four seasons of extreme highs and lows, Noel is ready to make up for all that lost time — and with Oklahoma City, he’s in the perfect situation to do so.
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