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Nerlens Noel may be the backup the Thunder have been looking for

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Noel’s star has dimmed, but backing up OKC’s big man may be the needed step to get him back on track.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel, an off-season acquisition by the Thunder, may have gone under the radar for most of the NBA, but for the Thunder, his signing may be critical to OKC’s outlook. A year after OKC failed to develop or acquire an adequate backup for Steven Adams, the team’s struggle in the playoffs against the Jazz highlighted the need, and OKC picked up Noel to address it.

In an article by The Oklahoman’s Brett Dawson, he writes on Noel’s joining the Thunder. He proclaims that the young 6’11” center had shown signs of his star year at Kentucky, but has yet to live up to it om a regular basis. Noel refers to himself as wanting to bring his competitiveness to a new level with OKC:

“I definitely want to bring my dog out...It’s been a while. It comes in spurts, the situations I was in. But I want to have it out on a nightly basis, playing with that energy and that joy.”

Players who go through years of underachieving or staying on a poor team for too long can see their drive to succeed and improve their game diminish, along with their future outlook for better contracts. Many of the young stars that come out of college were among the elite and played on thriving teams. When they arrive in the pros, many of the top picks are drafted by struggling clubs looking to turn their fortunes around. Noel was in that place during his first few years in Philly. In the middle of his third year, he was traded to Dallas because Philly had been loading up on centers from high draft picks with the likes of Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, but the change of scenery didn’t help. When he was with Dallas, it was reported that Noel’s “work ethic again was a concern,” according to Dawson.

Upon arriving in Oklahoma, there are signs of hope that the former star out of Kentucky still believes he can be an impact player on a winning team. Noel declined a four-year, $70 million contract” that was offered by the Mavs and instead settled with a low end $1.75 million for his first year in OKC with a player option for a second year. Despite the deep cut in salary, Noel has the chance to play for a club that boasts superstars Paul George and former league MVP Russell Westbrook, two guys that Noel believes will bring out his best abilities, even though his role will primarily be to back up starting center Steven Adams. But Adams is likely happy for the acquisition as well, as he appeared worn down and possibly playing hurt as the season ended, struggling in his head-to-head matchup with Rudy Gobert during OKC’s 1st round loss to the Jazz.

It will be a test to see if playing on low achieving teams was affecting his play, and if Noel’s new start in a winning culture will return him to success. He build and game play reminds me of Marcus Camby, a great shot blocker and rebounder whose scoring wasn’t his true strength. Noel is both of these and marked with great athleticism. This could be the right fit for him but only time will tell.

I admire his desire seek out to be on a winning team. His turning down a much more stable and higher paying contract shows something. The complacency and poor habits that can develop when players remain on poor clubs can be concerning, but if OKC performs well with Noel on the 2nd unit, then his issues may be a thing of the past.

I admit I am quite skeptical of centers coming out of college because they are typically chased after with high picks for their athletic potential (“You can’t teach height” — Red Aurbach) but without a defined set of skills (which sets someone like Embiid apart). The trio of height, rebounds and shot blocking ability is a viable pathway to easy access into the NBA, but you have to improve to stay there. As Noel surely by now knows.


D.M.Burt is a new writer to WTLC, but not to the NBA. He has been following the league since the 90’s, lived through Jordan’s heyday, wore a Warriors hat during their ‘Run TMC’ years, and may have owned a puffy Sonics jacket, but don’t hold it against him.