A former 6th overall pick and All-Rookie 1st team member back in 2015, Nerlens Noel fell out of favor quickly in his first full season with the Dallas Mavericks.
Most believed when Dallas acquired the big man in exchange for Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson and a heavily protected first-round pick (which actually became two second rounders after it didn’t fall into the Top 18 of the 2018 draft) that the Mavericks had struck gold.
And early on, it appeared that they did.
Noel suited up in 22 games for Dallas in 2016-17, averaging 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest, impressing with his energy, hustle and defensive prowess. Unfortunately for both Noel and the Mavs, however, that run of form didn’t continue this past season.
The Kentucky product only saw action in 30 games in 2017-18, missing a good chunk of the season following surgery for a wrist injury. Even when he did manage to see action, though, he was nowhere near as effective as he had been in years prior.
Noel averaged a meager 4.4 points nightly, adding 5.6 rebounds and 0.7 blocks to his counting totals.
And worst of all, he did that in a contract year after accepting the qualifying offer for 2018 (worth $4.1 million) as opposed to negotiating an extension with Dallas prior to his fourth season – a risk that looks like it’s going to end up costing him a lot of money.
Because now, Noel’s market more than likely is going to look pretty barren.
He’s been injury prone since arriving to the NBA, and after two promising seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers when he put up 10.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks nightly, his play hasn’t been consistent over the past two campaigns.
Nevertheless, Noel was an elite prospect coming into the league, did show unique skills early on with Philadelphia and will likely be awfully cheap to sign this summer. As such, he’ll still have a market, even when a lot of other players coming off two seasons like he just had wouldn’t.
We break down Noel’s likeliest landing spots in free agency.
Most of the teams with money to spend this summer are those currently in the midst of a rebuild, and one of them, in particular, could make sense as a Noel landing spot.
The Atlanta Hawks have a promising young big man already in John Collins, but he spent most of his rookie campaign manning the 4-spot. With Dewayne Dedmon, their current starting at the 5, set to turn 29 before next season and owning a player option on his contract for 2018-19, one he could very well opt out of, the Hawks could target a young center to pair next to Collins.
A good match could be Noel.
With his quick feet defensively on the perimeter and rim-diving prowess, he and Collins’ skill-sets could complement each other nicely, especially if Collins’ three-point stroke (he hit 34 percent of his 47 attempts in his inaugural campaign) continues to improve.
What’s more, when Noel had his game rolling early in his career, he showed nasty rim-protecting instincts so not only could he defend stretch-4 types with Collins in the paint, the duo could switch roles seamlessly if they needed to.
There’s also the Lloyd Pierce connection. The new Hawks head coach spent four seasons as an assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers, and was there for the entirety of Noel’s career in the City of Brotherly Love. If anyone remembers Noel’s early-career form, when he was a double-digit scorer who also averaged nearly two blocks and two steals nightly, it’s Pierce.
Taking a shot on a 24-year-old talent like Noel could be a worthwhile gamble for Atlanta, who have their work cut out for them in order to improve their young core, which we ranked as the 20th-strongest in the league back in February.
The fact that Noel should come cheap also doesn’t hurt matters. A deal along the lines of a two-year, $7 million agreement, with a team option on Year-2, could be enough to get things done between the two parties.
San Antonio Spurs
In 2017-18, following the trade deadline, the Spurs ranked as the league’s second-oldest team at an average age of 28.6. Sure, that could change next season with Manu Ginobili pondering retirement, Tony Parker and Danny Green hitting free agency (potentially, in Green’s case) and a lot of the roster potentially facing upheaval.
As a matter of fact, the only players over 30 who are guaranteed to return to San Antonio next season, barring a trade, are LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.
Even so, it’s clear the Spurs could stand to get a bit younger, particularly in the frontcourt, maybe with a player like Noel who, despite the campaign he’s coming off of, still offers decent potential.
Plus, who better to undertake a reclamation project of this magnitude than Gregg Popovich?
Perhaps playing under the head coach who had so much success with legendary big men like David Robinson and Tim Duncan could motivate Noel into getting his act together. He wouldn’t face that much pressure to perform right away, either, as the team’s frontcourt for the foreseeable future will be manned by the aforementioned Aldridge and Gasol.
Financially, landing Noel wouldn’t be complicated if San Antonio decides they want to go after the young center.
If the Spurs operate like a team over the cap this summer (which will be the case unless Green, Parker and Rudy Gay all walk), they could be willing to offer Noel their bi-annual exception, worth roughly $3.6 million.
A two-year, $7.2 million agreement, with a team option on Year-2, should be enough to get a deal agreed upon.
With the lack of cap space league-wide and considering the nadir his career is presently at, Noel shouldn’t expect to get a much richer offer anywhere else. If the almost-7-footer is forced to play at that price, there are worse things than having to do it in San Antonio under an elite head coach with so much experience getting the most out of big men.
And from the Spurs’ side of things, giving Noel the bi-annual exception means they’d get a young, still-somewhat-promising big at a very cheap price, and would still have the standard mid-level exception to use on a more established free-agent target.
The Washington Wizards are coming off an underachieving campaign, one in which they won just 43 games in the weaker conference, finished as the No. 8 seed in said weaker conference and were ousted by the playoffs in six games by a Toronto Raptors squad that got swept one round later by a pretty mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers team.
Oh, and they did all of that while owning the league’s fifth-highest payroll. Yikes.
Making matters worse, the team’s All-Star and highest-paid player, John Wall, and its starting center, Marcin Gortat, developed a hard-to-understand beef, which included both parties taking shots at each other on social media and further escalating things with comments made to the media.
At the end of the season, when Wall met with reporters for his end-of-year presser, he mentioned specifically wanting the Wizards to get younger in their frontcourt, singling out Gortat for getting up their in age (via NBC Sports):
“Just got to add some pieces,” he said. “A lot, to be honest. There’s a lot that we can use… I think it’s pretty obvious. I don’t need to point it out. I think the way the league is going, you need athletic bigs, you need scoring off the bench, you need all of those types of things. We don’t really have an athletic big. I mean, Ian [Mahinmi] is older. [Marcin Gortat] is older. They’re not athletic guys, but they do the little things that permit their game to help as much as possible.”
Well, he may not be an upgrade over Gortat as far as on-court production goes, but Noel is certainly younger and more athletic, and could be a better fit in the locker room considering the Kentucky connection he and Wall share.
And for a team operating with so much money on their books, taking on a promising big like Noel at such a cheap price is really their only way to improve going forward, barring major trades to rid themselves of bad contracts.
If Washington can manage to find a taker for Gortat, which shouldn’t be that difficult considering he’s still relatively productive, they would get under the projected luxury tax and be able to offer Noel the bi-annual exception, same as San Antonio.
A one year, $3.6 million deal would make the most sense in this scenario, with the Wizards trying to avoid taking on any more long-term money.
Noel could join a playoff-caliber squad in the East, prove himself as a legitimate contributor on a good team and test the market again in a year when more teams will have freed-up cap space.
And Washington could land an athletic young center, one that, more importantly, won’t have off-the-court problems with the team’s most important player.
Golden State Warriors
Another playoff team, albeit with slightly higher expectations than the aforementioned ones, that could use a big man this summer are the Golden State Warriors.
This summer, the defending champs are at risk of losing four of the centers on their roster: David West, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and Kevon Looney. The first two have already reportedly flirted with retirement, McGee could seek a slightly better paying situation and Looney, after having his fourth-year option not exercised by Golden State, could easily find one as well, considering the Warriors won’t be able to offer him anything more than $2.3 million for next season, a price that other teams can exceed.
Thus, Golden State could go from having an overabundance of big men on their roster to not having enough in just one offseason.
That’s where a target like Noel could come into the picture.
Because the Warriors are projected to be over the luxury tax next season, they won’t have the bi-annual exception available to offer Noel. Instead, they could use a part of, or even (though not likely) their entire tax-payer mid-level exception, worth $5.3 million to entice the former Kentucky center.
With his quick hands, quicker feet, shot-blocking instincts and finishing ability in the paint, Noel could be a good fit on a Golden State team with so much firepower that opportunities open up for lower-level players are able to shine.
Just look at what they’ve been able to do to revive McGee’s career.
It’s not difficult to envision a similar revitalization occurring for Noel, who, as we’ve covered, is still young, and still has plenty of potential to offer.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.