Detroit — When the Pistons needed Nerlens Noel the most, the veteran big man proved he still had plenty left in the tank to anchor a defense.
Noel’s interior defense in the third quarter of Wednesday’s blowout win over the Timberwolves ignited several fast breaks, which was new territory for the Pistons.
It allowed them to run and get out in transition. They didn’t have to rely on half-court sets to produce offense. They shared the ball. Most importantly, Noel’s play carried over to his young teammates, and the Pistons’ overall defense improved.
Noel, who’s been used as Detroit’s emergency center, has been called to the rescue in the wake of recent injuries to the team’s starting frontcourt, Isaiah Stewart and rookie Jalen Duren.
In his second consecutive start, Noel registered four of Detroit’s seven blocks, along with three steals. All four of those rejections occurred in the third quarter. Over his last two games, Noel has brought a different defensive energy to the Pistons with averages of five rebounds, 3.5 blocks and two steals per game.
“Ten years in, it’s a blessing. Nothing to take for granted,” Noel said after the game. “I saw tonight we were playing against (Rudy) Gobert, so I definitely took it upon myself to try and be at my best as far as rim-protecting goes. This is what I’ve been doing and I’m going to continue to do it, especially with the steals. I know it changes the game. Just gotta stay consistent.”
Noel, 28, is a 6-foot-11 big man who was selected with the sixth overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2013 NBA Draft. He spent the last two seasons with the New York Knicks and revitalized his career after two-year stints with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks.
When Noel arrived in Detroit with Alec Burks as part of a trade with the Knicks during the offseason, many believed that he would compete for playing time with Duren while Stewart and Marvin Bagley III served as the team’s premier frontcourt pieces.
That hasn’t been the case. The 19-year-old Duren has emerged as the Pistons’ starting center and the franchise is invested in his development. Stewart has transitioned to the power forward spot to stretch the floor. And Bagley, who recently had surgery to repair a right hand fracture, is holding down the middle for the team’s second unit.
Noel said he came into the season thinking knowing the Pistons likely would want to develop their young frontcourt, but also wanted to remain prepared in case the team needed him at some point.
“I’ve always been a team guy, through everything,” Noel said. “It’s a great group of guys here, great young guys. With my veteran s—, I just lend 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, so I’m never tripping on that. I’m always here for them and when they call my number, I’ll be ready.”
Detroit’s young core praised Noel’s impact after the win, which marked its second win over Minnesota in the last two weeks.
Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey lauded Noel for his professionalism and his infectious energy. One of Noel’s blocks sparked a fast break that resulted in Ivey finding Saddiq Bey for a two-handed slam.
“It was definitely contagious,” said Ivey, who had 18 points and eight assists. “He just brought the energy tonight. I commend Nerlens for just staying ready. He showed up big defensively for us tonight. It brought energy to the whole team.”
Bey, fresh off a season-high 31 points, called Noel a “difference-maker.”
“I remember seeing him in my rookie year when he was playing with the Knicks,” Bey said. “He was blocking shots. That’s what he’s been doing his whole career. It was just good to see him do that and we know he can do that.”
Despite the fluctuation with his role, Noel remains engaged during games. He stretches in between timeouts. He cheers for his teammates after big plays.
The most recent example of Noel’s camaraderie occurred after Bey nailed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 4. Noel, in a crouched position, waited for the play to unfold. As soon as the ball went through the net, he rushed over to embrace Bey.
“I sit next to him on the plane every time we have a road trip,” Bey said. “He’s been in the league for a while. He knows the ins and outs of it. Whether he plays or not, he has a great personality. He’s a great team guy so it’s just great to see.”
Pistons coach Dwane Casey was pleased with Noel’s performance and credited his experience for setting the tone after halftime.
“He’s seen everything. People forget how many NBA minutes he’s played. I trust that,” Casey said. “We’re just in a situation where we’re trying to develop a rookie, which is what we have to do as an organization. He understood his role when he came here. He’s been a pro. ‘Stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.’ He’s been that and I was really happy for him tonight.”
Tuesday’s matchup with his former 76ers teammate Joel Embiid, arguably the best center in the league, was a whirlwind for Noel. He had a more favorable matchup on Wednesday with Gobert, who is limited offensively but has a comparable defensive skillset. If Noel starts Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans, he’ll be tipping off against Jonas Valanciunas, who also can knock down the 3-point shot.
Who Noel lines up against doesn’t change his approach to the game, he’s just happy he’s conditioned to handle the workload after playing in just 11 games this season.
“I got my wind back, so that’s helpful,” Noel said. “I’ve been doing this all my life. Just play smart. Just use your IQ, use your strengths, and quickness. You just try to outsmart them and just play your game at the end of the day. (Who he’s playing) doesn’t matter, it won’t change my game. I just try to outwork them to their weaknesses.”
“I’m here for everybody and ima do my job,” Noel said. “I love this game so much. That love will never go away.”