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Report: Thunder sign Nerlens Noel to two-year deal

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OKC adds frontcourt depth in another free agency move.

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

According to Yahoo’s Shams Charania, the Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed to a two-year contract with free agent Nerlens Noel. Per Charania, the deal has a player option in year two.

In 30 games last year with the Dallas Mavericks, Noel averaged 4.4 points and 5.6 rebounds. The 6-11 big man was drafted 6th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.

This is a good deal for both sides. Noel has had weird career- his tenure in Philly was hurt by injuries, him being forced to share the court with Jahlil Okafor, despite both playing the same position, and then the emergence of Joel Embiid as a superstar. Noel then was shipped off to Dallas, where he refused to sign a sizable but not max extension and was promptly banished to the back of the rotation, playing sparingly. His most notable moment last season was going to the media dining room at halftime of a game to get a hot dog (hey, he wasn’t playing anyways). It’s safe to say his first 4 seasons have not been the stuff of legends.

Still, there’s a reason the guy was drafted #6 overall just four years ago. When he does play, he shows flashes of being a great rim protector and rebounder. He’s an elite athlete, and on offense can be a good rim-runner and lob-catcher. That’s really all OKC needs out of a backup center- defend hard, grab some boards, screen and roll for Russell Westbrook or Paul George.

But there’s a chance Noel becomes more than that- that he finally puts together the obvious package of skills he possesses now that’s he in a winning situation. In that case, he becomes a possible trade asset for OKC towards the trade deadline, helping them secure a wing or a future pick that can be flipped down the road. Worst case, he flames out, and OKC can get off him after two seasons without spending all that much money. But that potential upside isn’t there if OKC signed a veteran, ho-hum center like Ed Davis instead.

The most likely outcome is that Noel is average- he plays 15 minutes a night behind Adams (I wonder how much of Noel-Adams together we’ll see- neither can shoot, so they may not seem like a great fit in the modern NBA, but they would be unstoppable on the boards, and Billy Donovan wasn’t afraid to roll with Adams-Enes Kanter lineups in the past), rebounds and defends decently, and opts out after the first year of his deal to get a payday elsewhere. That would still be a win for OKC, who had no true backup center last year, and relied on Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant playing out of position behind Adams (it looks like Dakari Johnson may never be NBA ready). And it’s good insurance if Adams is hurt or runs into foul trouble-the Thunder suffered heavily when he sat after racking up fouls in two games of their playoff series against the Jazz and Rudy Gobert.

Noel fills an obvious need for OKC, while also offering some tantalizing upside if everything breaks right. He’s a bit riskier of a signing than a more proven player, but the potential upside makes up for it. This is the kind of medium-risk, high-reward move that the Thunder will need to keep taking to get to the level of true championship contenders. With the core stars of Westbrook, George and Adams locked up for their primes, Sam Presti’s challenge is now filling out the roster with a better supporting cast than OKC managed in the Westbrook-Durant era, despite the constraint of being over the salary cap. Championship teams need to find players this way- Golden State, for instance, took Shaun Livingston, a former high draft pick whose career had been nearly ruined by injuries, and made him an important part of their title runs. The thunder will have to do the same if they want to win a championship. Taking a risk on Noel is a great start- scared money don’t make none, after all.