Nerlens Noel eased himself into a folding chair on the practice court inside the Dallas Mavericks’ practice facility last week, a bag of ice strapped to each knee. It’s been a long, circuitous route for the 6-foot-11 center to get to this point — one that’s taken him from Kentucky to Philadelphia and now Dallas, and which feels longer due to myriad injuries and speed bumps along the way.
Noel is entering his fifth NBA season — and he does so at age 23, a reminder of how early he arrived in the league. With a tumultuous 12 months behind him, the springy defensive ace said he’s finally able to do something he’s rarely been able to do: focus on basketball.
“There’s definitely been steppingstones I’ve had to take to where I am now,” Noel said. “But I’m at that point, and I feel as confident and excited to play basketball as I ever [have].”
It’s been some time since Noel has been able to talk like that. Since tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament during his freshman season at the University of Kentucky, it’s been one thing after another for Noel — from injury issues to playing time battles to eventually being traded from Philadelphia to Dallas. Just this summer, he was forced to switch agents and eventually settle on a one-year qualifying offer after passing up a multiyear deal in the faint hopes of landing a max contract as a restricted free agent. Playing out the year on the qualifying offer allows Noel to return to the market next summer as an unrestricted free agent.
“It’s been a lot,” Noel said. “I ain’t going to say it’s been bad. But just everything I’ve gone through my whole career I think has built me up for this situation I am in now. From college, and how I ended that, and now.
“I know what I’m built for, and I know I can get through this.”
What he’s built for, from a basketball perspective, is to be the kind of center every team is searching for in today’s NBA. As three-point shooting at every position has become prioritized in recent years, a center with the ability to set screens and dive to the rim offensively while being athletic enough to both protect the rim and switch defensively onto smaller players on the perimeter is highly valuable.
That’s especially true in Dallas, where the Mavericks have been unable to find such a player in recent seasons — at least when anyone other than Tyson Chandler has manned the position. That’s why the Mavericks chose to trade for Noel midway through last season.
“He learned what we expect from the five-position [last season],” Coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s an important position because of the screening and rolling action on offense, and defensively our five-man is our defensive anchor.
“It was great we got a chance to get to know him last year. With that experience it should make things smoother this year and it has so far, which is a very important thing.”
Despite the obvious fit for Noel as the center in Carlisle’s system, there is one rather large issue complicating matters: the presence of Dirk Nowitzki on the roster. While Nowitzki will likely go into the Hall of Fame as a revolutionary player due to his shooting ability as a power forward, at 39 and entering his 20th NBA season, he can only realistically be deployed at center.
So with Nowitzki at center and Harrison Barnes at power forward, Carlisle reached out to Noel and his agent, Rich Paul, before training camp began to inform them that Noel would likely be coming off the bench. And while he would rather be starting, the fact Carlisle was upfront and honest about the situation was one of several reasons Noel enjoys playing for him.
“Really it’s been great,” Noel said of his relationship with Carlisle. “It’s funny … when I first got here, I wasn’t sure how it was going to be, because I always heard different things about him. But then it’s really a respect thing with him.
“That’s the realest thing in this league, or this world. You’ve got to earn respect. Once I did, we just started getting on the same page, and now he’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever had.”
Even with a starting spot unavailable, Noel expressed many reasons he is excited for the coming season. With a roster full of three-point shooters to space the floor around him, and an exciting rookie point guard in Dennis Smith Jr. that Noel says he’s been watching since Smith’s junior year in high school, he sees why, stylistically, it’s a good fit for him.
After the many ups-and-downs of his three-and-a-half seasons in Philadelphia — much of which was spent in the heart of “The Process” and its requisite roster turnover — Noel appreciates the stability of a Mavericks organization that has had the same owner (Mark Cuban), lead executive (Donnie Nelson) and coach (Carlisle) for 10 consecutive seasons and a star in Nowitzki who’s been the face of the franchise for two decades.
“It’s just … not to say Philly isn’t now, but it’s just a more established culture,” Noel said. “When you’re here, you really feel like you’re around a real NBA team with veterans, and every day things that go along that even help you build on good habits.”
The question, though, is whether Noel will be part of that culture for the long haul. Due to signing his qualifying offer of $4.1 million for this season, Noel will be an unrestricted free agent next summer — meaning he’ll able to choose any destination, including a return to Dallas.
More often than not, a player in Noel’s position — one who signs a qualifying offer to remain with his team, as opposed to signing a long-term deal — winds up leaving the following summer when they hit unrestricted free agency.
“No, honestly, I wasn’t surprised,” Noel said of how his summer played out. “I’ve been in this league long enough, and lived this life long enough, being in the NBA and seeing how contract situations go to understand how things might go. So I wasn’t too surprised.
“I didn’t really get emotional about it. It’s a business. Now you just get your mind right and it’s a good situation to be in … just worry about getting better and go from there.”
Given how rarely Noel has been able to focus solely on basketball, it’s natural that he’d want to take this season to continue to build on the court. But it’s fitting that, for a player who has spent the past few years dealing with one distraction after another, he’ll have one more — his looming unrestricted free agency — hanging over him all season long.
“I think everything will figure itself out,” Noel said. “I just want to focus on the season, and have the best season in a Dallas Mavericks uniform, and take it all from there.”