Nerlens Noel is in Detroit to protect the paint and to be Jalen Duren’s ‘Looper’

Detroit Bad Boys

It’s been something of a wild ride for Nerlens Noel, professional basketball player, since entering the NBA in the 2013 draft. ESPN’s No. 1 ranked prospect, Noel showcased his advanced defensive ability and instincts in his lone year at Kentucky, highlighted by a UK single-game record of 12 blocks in a January performance against Ole Miss. A few weeks later, Noel’s college career would end due to a torn ACL suffered in a February matchup against Florida.

Noel was the presumed first pick in the 2013 NBA draft before the injury, and he was still considered the odds-on favorite when the Cleveland Cavaliers walked to the podium. Instead, the Cavs infamously selected UNLV forward Anthony Bennett, causing Noel to fall down the draft board before eventually being selected sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans.

In exchange for Jrue Holiday and the draft rights to Pierre Jackson, Noel was traded on draft night to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he would begin his NBA career. Noel would proceed to miss the entirety of what would have been his rookie season recovering from his knee surgery. He would eventually debut during the 2014-15 NBA season, where he was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team with per-game averages of 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks across 75 games played.

Since his encouraging rookie year, it’s been a rocky ride. His star faded a bit as Joel Embiid established himself as the 76ers big of the future, and Noel was traded from Philly to Dallas during the 2016-17 season. After an injury-riddled stint with the Mavericks, he landed with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he managed to be largely available with 77 and 61 games played in his two years with the organization, but never eclipsed 20 minutes per game.

NBA: New York Knicks at Cleveland Cavaliers

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In 2020, Noel signed a one-year deal with the New York Knicks, where he was a defensive fixture for a team that ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating across the NBA. He parlayed his impressive defensive performance into a three-year, $32 million contract with the Knicks. He played just 25 games in the first year of that contract, and the Knicks dealt him to the Detroit Pistons in an effort to open up enough salary ap space so the team could sign Jalen Brunson.

Fit with Detroit

When news broke that Noel and Alec Burks were being shipped from New York to Detroit, many Pistons fans assumed it was a Kemba Walker-like salary dump that would involve significant draft assets to Detroit. In reality, both Noel and Burks are still pretty good and on team-friendly deals. In essence, Troy Weaver was doing a bit of free-agent shopping on the trade market.

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It was clear how easily Burks, a multi-positional defender who can hit 3s, would fit in Detroit. Noel’s role in Detroit was a bit murkier. Detroit’s frontcourt already included Isaiah Stewart, Marvin Bagley, Kelly Olynyk, and rookie Jalen Duren, giving the Pistons five players who are best suited for the center position. While this was a dream come true for Troy Weaver – notorious center fanatic – it brought more than a few questions for the Pistons’ upcoming rotation.

Those questions have been cleared up a tad in recent weeks, mostly due to the trade that saw Detroit ship Olynyk and Saben Lee to Utah in exchange for veteran marksman Bojan Bogdanovic. The trade, along with the Pistons’ apparent intention to give Stewart and Bagley run at the power forward position, making it much clearer what role Noel would play in Detroit. Then, when Bagley sustained a knee injury during the Pistons’ preseason game against the Thunder on Oct. 11, Noel’s services suddenly felt a lot more necessary.

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While it’s easy to understand what Detroit will be asking Noel to do on the floor, it’s much less clear just how often they will call on Noel to do it. Personally, I’ve thought Noel could be a sneaky candidate to start at center since the Bogdanovic trade. If the Pistons choose to start the season with Bogdanovic and Saddiq Bey at the forward positions, Noel would make a lot of sense as a rim protector and glass cleaner in that lineup, though this would likely require head coach Dwane Casey to play him as a drop defender.

With the current “switch everything” defensive scheme Casey appears intent on sticking with, it’s much more likely Stewart begins the season as the starting center. There’s been no indication of Stewart moving to the bench anytime soon, regardless, and Noel is still working to return from a foot injury that held him out the final two months of this past season. When Noel does return, he’s likely to do so off the bench as a backup center, at least to start.

Know Your Role, Nerlens Noel

On the court, Noel’s role should look similar to what he’s been asked to do for the entirety of his NBA career. That is to protect the paint, crash the boards, set picks and catch lobs. Easy enough for a veteran who’s spent nine years perfecting his craft. However, Nerlens Noel’s job description this season goes far beyond his on-court duties. As put so eloquently by DBB’s own Lazarus Jackson on a recent podcast with Hardwood Knocks:

“Nerlens’ main goal is to just be, like, Jalen Duren’s ‘Looper.’ Just drag him around, be like, ‘I was like you once, don’t be like me!’ ”

While Laz’s bit identified Noel’s firing of his agent right before restricted free agency as one way Duren can learn how NOT to be like Noel (good call, Laz), Noel truly does possess veteran wisdom that he can impart to Duren, as Noel was once in Duren’s shoes as a young player with a similar skill set, looking to find his way in the league.

It figures that Weaver identified this as a plus when trading for Noel, and having Duren start his career behind a more refined veteran to show him the ropes seems like an ideal way to jumpstart his development. It would be in Duren’s best interest to absorb as much insight from Noel as possible, as few know the intricacies of protecting the rim at an NBA level as well as Noel. While Noel can certainly still be a valuable part of an NBA rotation when healthy, this is the single most important way that he can provide value to the Pistons this season.

Having Duren under his tutelage isn’t the only way for Noel to help the Pistons’ future. While the Pistons young core would love to make a play-in run this season, early speculation is that Detroit could be sellers come the trade deadline. In Burks, Bogdanovic, Noel and others, the Pistons have some veterans that could be coveted by contending teams later in the season. The organization is adamant that the young guys are best served surrounded by talented veterans, which is true, but odds are Weaver wouldn’t be opposed to flipping some veteran talent for future assets at the trade deadline.

While Burks and Bogdanovic both possess skill sets that could be valuable to a contending team, for my money, Noel is the player most likely to be shipped out at the deadline. It’s unlikely opposing GMs have forgotten how effective Noel was as the cog of the 2020-21 Knicks defense. If he can put together a good stretch of healthy basketball for the Pistons, he should be coveted by any contending team lacking rim protection. In an ideal world, Duren will be ready to fully take on Noel’s minutes by the trade deadline, giving Detroit the luxury of flipping Noel for a few goodies once that time comes.

In general, Noel’s role with this young Pistons team will be three-fold:

  1. Be a role model for the young players, take Jalen Duren specifically under his wing and show him the ins and outs of being a talented young big man in the NBA
  2. Provide consistent production and a stable, veteran presence on-court whenever called upon
  3. Get healthy, stay healthy, and rebuild trade value through on-court production

It’s fair to assume that both Noel and the Pistons organization have a mutual understanding that Noel is here for a good time, not a long time. This should be totally fine by both parties. But that doesn’t mean he can’t provide value in his time with the organization.

In the short term, the Pistons need him on the court. Bagley’s injury was a big blow, and Duren isn’t ready to take on a full load out of the gate. Long-term, Noel can make his impact felt by guiding Duren and the other rookies, as well as possibly netting the Pistons some extra assets by rebuilding his value and being shipped to a contender.

Acquiring Noel was a low-risk move, but it has the potential to be a big win for both sides.

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