When Nerlens Noel decided to run it back with the Thunder last summer, many were surprised the former top-10 pick was returning to OKC. Coming off a season in which Noel missed only five regular-season games — compared to 52 the previous year with Dallas — the big man seemed destined to demand a lot more attention/money than what the Thunder would be able to offer.
The Thunder, still living in luxury tax purgatory, did not have the means to extend big contract offers to viable free agents. The team instead had to bargain shop in order to fill roster spots or go G-League fishing for young players with potential upside (I see you, Lu Dort).
So, when the announcement was made that Noel was re-signing with OKC, the news was unexpected. Maybe even for Nerlens himself, who perhaps second-guessed his decision, asking the Thunder to re-evaluate their agreement. With a history of bad contract negotiations, it was understandable for Noel to be overly cautious. He turned down a 4-year, $70 million contract from Dallas in the summer of 2017, signing a 1-year qualifying offer with the Mavs for only $4.1 million in hopes of earning something more lucrative the following summer.
Unfortunately, that more lucrative offer never arrived.
Regardless, Noel’s comfort level within the Thunder organization remained strong and Sam Presti worked his magic per usual. The former Kentucky Wildcat returned to the Thunder for the 2019-20 season and has been a revelation. According to the man himself, it’s the most fun he’s ever had in the NBA.
Looking to pick up where he left off last season, Noel resumed his role coming off the bench as the ideal reliever for starter Steven Adams. Statistically the numbers aren’t going to garner much attention for Noel. According to basketball-reference, he averaged 18.4 minutes / 4.9 rebounds / 7.7 points per game this season.
Those numbers are irrelevant and seeing is believing when it comes to how Noel is able to impact the game while on the court.
Noel’s rebounding and shot blocking talent makes him one of the more feared rim protectors in all of the NBA. Standing near 7 feet tall; Noel’s length, athleticism and ability to track the ball on the defensive side forces opponents to alter their game-plans when attacking the lane in his presence. On-ball defense is another strong suite for Nerlens, whose agility and quick feet enable him to play man-to-man and switch off screens without becoming a liability.
Like everyone in the Thunder organization, Noel has benefited from Chris Paul and the 3-headed monster at point guard. Offensively, the rapport between Noel and his floor generals has been seamless in their own version of lob (loud) city. As shown below, Noel fits perfectly into the pick-n-roll gameplay CP3 has been utilizing his entire career.
Noel has also shown a real connection with Dennis Schroder on similar plays.
Noel is an underrated asset and luxury to this Thunder team with the talent to be a starter in this league. Injuries and bad contractual decisions might have derailed his career early on but the former #1 high school recruit is only 26-years-old, which is actually one year younger than Steven Adams. He has a lot of mileage remaining if he can remain healthy.
Noel has been pivotal to the Thunder’s success, providing great depth during the regular season and will be instrumental in any form of success in Orlando. Whether or not he’s played himself out of Sam Presti’s price range is yet to be determined — Noel will hit free agency once again prior to next season.