As Nerlens Noel made his first move to get off the bench, the applause began to build and finally hit a crescendo as he was announced to the home crowd.
You could almost feel the thirst for hope being quenched.
And it went both ways. The former University of Kentucky star did his share of smiling on the court, and after three seasons of mostly rugged times in Philadelphia, it was no wonder.
“I think it’s a very fresh start that probably was needed,” Noel said before the game. “It was a tough few years in Philly, but I think it made me stronger in a lot of ways, mentally and physically. Going through that wasn’t easy, but I’ve come out of it ready to look back and say, ‘Wow, I really feel proud for the way you handled yourself.’
“I’m really looking forward to what we have here. The opportunity is out there coming in the near future.”
And the present wasn’t bad, either. The Mavericks scored a 96-83 victory over the new-look New Orleans Pelicans. Noel did plenty of good things and so did a lot of his teammates, including Dirk Nowitzki with 18 points and nine rebounds.
After six seasons of watching older veterans come and go on one-year contracts, the fandom saw in Noel an actual, high-flying, quick-afoot big man who could be timed running down the court with a stopwatch, not an hourglass.
Noel did not start. Coming in “off the bus” as coach Rick Carlisle said, he didn’t have enough knowledge of the Mavericks’ system to jump center. But that will come soon enough, Carlisle assured.
Noel finished with nine points and a team-best 10 rebounds in 31 minutes and had a signature moment that most people might not have noticed.
Early in the fourth quarter, he set a screen for Devin Harris at the top of the key, then rolled to the basket. The defense went with him, determined not to give up any easy lob dunks.
That left Dirk Nowitzki all by his lonesome on the perimeter and he swished an 18-footer for a 71-65 lead. Just the threat of attacking the rim helped the offense. The Mavericks would stretch the lead to a dozen, then hung on for dear life.
Noel’s first Maverick points came via free throws with 1:14 left in the first quarter. He had successfully blocked out DeMarcus Cousins and drew the foul on the new Pelican. On the next possession, he would knock in a 15-foot jumper.
And so it began.
“I’m ecstatic,” Noel said. “I still feel like I’m raw. (But) this is a team that wants to get back to the promised land, compete for championships. That’s what I’m all about. I played at a lot of levels in my career, been in a lot of (big) games, so it’s something that I am accustomed to.”
The Mavericks seemed to have a bit more juice to them, even though they had played the night before at Minnesota.
The addition of Noel certainly didn’t hurt that. When he was on the floor, the Mavericks were a tougher team at the defensive end. And against a New Orleans team that is in transition itself with DeMarcus Cousins joining Anthony Davis, the Mavericks held their own in the rebounding department.
This is why the Mavericks’ management team is optimistic, as is Noel.
“I think it’s a great young core,” he said. “I’ve seen Yogi (Ferrell) really rise in this league the last couple months. Seth (Curry), Harrison (Barnes) is still only 24 years old. I think we’ve continued to add pieces that we needed and the future is bright.”
And the skill set Noel possesses will be featured over time, Carlisle said.
“The stat I heard is that he leads the league in deflections, which is a stunning stat for a center,” he said. “Usually it’s point guards and high-level wing defenders who are in that category. His ability for positive defensive activity is there. It’s there in the metrics, analytics, whatever you want to call it. The shot-blocking ability is there. The running is there. And the ability to roll and be a threat above the rim is there.”
It’s a package the Mavericks are eager to mold over the final 24 games and upcoming seasons.