Throughout the season, Nerlens Noel has been an emergency option for the Detroit Pistons. This week, though, he has been a starter, thanks to multiple injuries draining the Pistons’ depth up front.
Noel turned back the clock Wednesday and played his best defensive game of the season. It energized the ailing Pistons to a rally and a rout.
His four-block, three-steal third quarter “changed the game defensively,” coach Dwane Casey said after the Pistons’ 135-118 home win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, a night after the Pistons fell to the Philadelphia 76ers on the road by 31 points. The Pistons were without three of their big men, as Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren missed their second and third straight games with left shoulder soreness and right ankle soreness, respectively. Marvin Bagley III is still weeks away from returning from surgery to repair metacarpal fractures in his right hand.
It was a reminder that Noel, the 6-foot-10 center now in his 10th season after being drafted sixth overall in 2013, can still be a defensive force when given the opportunity.
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“He’s seen everything,” Casey said after the win. “People forget how many NBA minutes he’s played. I trust that.”
Noel, who has long held a reputation as a defensively savvy center dating back to his lone season at Kentucky, arrived in Detroit with Alec Burks last summer from the New York Knicks. Unlike Burks, who has emerged as one of Detroit’s key role players, Noel hasn’t played consistent minutes and has been called a “9-1-1” option to address any depth issues.
It’s not a reflection on Noel’s ability, but of Detroit’s roster makeup and longterm organizational goals. The Pistons traded for No. 13 overall pick Jalen Duren last summer, and his development has taken priority. Since Duren and Noel are both rim-running centers who don’t space the floor, there’s really only room for one in the rotation. Noel’s minutes have generally come when Duren is hurt, and Wednesday was only his 11th appearance of the season.
“We’re just in a situation where we’re trying to develop a rookie, which is what we have to do as an organization,” Casey said. “He understood his role when he came here. He’s been a pro, stayed ready. You don’t have to get ready, he’s been that. I was really happy for him tonight.
“He lets the young guys get the reps in practice, in shootarounds, but he’s paying attention and he understands what we’re doing,” Casey continued. “For him to come in, limited minutes, and understand the terminology and some of the plays that we’re running, it’s to his experience.”
The Pistons fell behind 10-0 early in the first quarter, but rallied back in the second before taking full control in the third. Noel was a big part of Detroit’s comeback. The Timberwolves fell apart after halftime, shooting 8-for-21 and turning the ball over eight times in the third. Noel’s active hands and defensive positioning made life difficult for Minnesota.
His first block of the game was a Jaden McDaniels layup attempt early in the third, and it led to a fastbreak layup for Jaden Ivey that gave Detroit the lead for good, 71-69. Midway through the quarter, he rejected Taurean Prince at the rim, and Saddiq Bey got a transition dunk through contact, also earning an and-1 free throw.
Late in the third, his fourth and final rejection led to an easy fastbreak layup for Killian Hayes that pushed Detroit’s lead to nine. The Pistons won the third period, 36-23. Noel’s defensive activity set the tone.
“We know, especially when he’s in the game that we can play real aggressive on the perimeter knowing that you don’t want to get blown by but if you do, they have to see him at the rim,” Saddiq Bey said in the locker room. “It’s just great for him to be our anchor.
“I sit next to him on the plane every time we’re on a road trip. He’s been in the league for a while so he knows the ins and outs of it. Whether he plays or not, he has a great personality, great team guy.”
Noel has accepted his role with grace. The veteran knows he can still play, but he also understands the situation he’s in. He was traded to the 76ers on draft night in 2013, and made his debut in 2014 after rehabbing an ACL tear. The Sixers, embracing “The Process,” won 18 games his first season and 10 his second. He’s been in rebuild-mired and playoff-bound locker rooms.
He understands the NBA, and his role in it. He didn’t know what his situation was going to be when traded to Detroit last summer, just days after the organization added Duren to pair alongside another young big man in Isaiah Stewart. But he has been a positive for his young teammates, embracing helping them.
“I’m a laid-back person that just does my work and put my head down,” Noel said. “I was never tripping. I’m here for everybody and I’m going to do my job, and I love this game so much. That love will never go away.”
Until Stewart and Duren return, Noel could continue to enjoy an expanded role. Wednesday was his second straight start. The Pistons have struggled mightily on defense this season, but Noel gave their defense an identity on Wednesday.
“Whatever the team needs from me,” Noel said. “I’ve always been a team guy, through everything. It’s a great group of guys, great young guys. I’m on my veteran (expletive), just letting knowledge, whatever they want, let them pick my brain and help them out with experiences I’ve been through. We’ve got a young frontcourt, I’m never tripping on that. I’m always here for them and when they call my number, I’ll be ready.”