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2022 Offseason: What to expect from Nerlens Noel as a Detroit Piston

Nerlens Noel offers the Detroit Pistons a steadying presence amid Detroit’s youthful front court

Detroit Pistons v New York Knicks Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

On the eve of the NBA’s annual free agency period, Troy Weaver and the Detroit Pistons front office agreed to terms on a ‘salary dump’ deal with the New York Knicks, acquiring veteran duo Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel, as well as a pair of second-round picks and cash.

Taken with the 6th overall selection back in 2013, Noel entered the league touted as an athletic defensive anchor. Due to an ACL injury suffered in his freshman season with Kentucky, the 6-foot-11 big man fell on draft night, before being acquired via trade by Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers, making him the first core piece to ‘The Process.’

Similar to “The Process,” Noel has been subjected to his fair share of ups and downs throughout his eight-year career. Most notably declining a four-year, $70 million contract from the Dallas Mavericks, in favor of a one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer in pursuit of a max contract, which he ultimately never received.

In recent seasons, Noel seems to have solidified his role in the NBA as a disruptive backup center. The addition of the 28-year-old Noel provides another true big man to the frontcourt trio of Kelly Olynyk, Marvin Bagley III and Isaiah Stewart. Though it’s hard to forecast a rotation between the quartet of giants, the inclusion of height is a welcomed addition following a 2021 offseason where the roster lacked protection on the interior.

With a Detroit roster now overflowing with front-court depth, I teamed up with DDB’s Motor City Hoops - Bryce Simon, to provide insight into the type of player Nerlens Noel is, and how he could be utilised in his debut season with the Pistons.

Denver Nuggets v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Noel supplies Detroit a defensive aggressor in the front court

To begin the 2020-2021 regular season, Dwane Casey and staff installed a drop coverage scheme for second-year big Isaiah Stewart. However, as the season progressed, the coaching staff altered the defense to cater to Stewart’s uncanny ability to guard perimeter players, implementing a switch-centric style of defense.

Unlike Stewart, Noel is most optimal when deployed in a defense featuring heavy dosages of drop coverage. He doesn’t possess the lateral foot speed to switch onto speedy perimeter players. Hence, it will be interesting to see how Noel is integrated defensively, as the former lottery selection’s length and disruptive instincts are accentuated in the painted area. His 7-foot-4 wingspan wreaks havoc on the interior, often forcing opposing ball handlers to think-twice before firing a pass to their roll man, causing enough in decision to blow-up the play.

The Kentucky product has consistently ranked amongst the league’s best in terms of blocks and steals, averaging over one denial and as many pilfers per game during his eight-year career. Lineups with Noel on the floor have typically held opponents to a reduced percentage at the rim, particularly in Noel’s most recent stint with the New York Knicks.

Nerlens the Disruptor

Type Block % (Percentile) Steal % (Percentile) On/Off diff: opponent shooting at rim (Percentile)
Type Block % (Percentile) Steal % (Percentile) On/Off diff: opponent shooting at rim (Percentile)
2020-2021 4.7% (97th) 2.1% (95th) - 4.1 FG% (88th)
2021-2022 2.9% (87th) 2.3% (96th) - 8.7 FG% (98th)
Per Cleaning the Glass | | 7.27.2022

The Massachusetts native has typically displayed desirable defensive intensity, however, the 28-year-old can be undisciplined in his approach. While Noel’s extensive injury history has primarily altered his career arc, the way he hunts for defensive impact have made him a particularly frustrating prospect.

Though Noel’s raw numbers as a rim protector are great his tendency to become ‘trigger happy’ with every available swat attempt make him susceptible to high foul tallies and opens up opportunities for second-chance points via putbacks.

When defending the pick and roll, Noel likes to jump the opposing screen, ‘showing’ to the ball handler with the intent of rushing them into a poor decision. While this type of action lends itself to Noel’s aforementioned disruptive abilities, the Kentucky Wildcat elects to ‘show’ almost to a fault. The wiry big’s aggressive nature defending in ball screen actions, resulted in numerous looks at the rim for the opposing roll man each and every contest.

It’s these disciplinary traits which have lead Noel to average only 22.4 minutes per game throughout his career. For Detroit, barring injury, Noel’s defensive capabilities would be best served in a reserve role. The likes of Jaden Ivey and Hamidou Diallo could feat on transition opportunities with Noel’s ability to create opponent turnovers.

Noel parlays vertical spacing and second chance opportunities on offense

Aside a brief stint shooting 15-foot jumpers during his Philly days, Noel’s offensive diet has consisted of strictly putbacks via offensive boards, dunks off baseline cuts and looks as a dive man in the pick and roll. In the past five seasons, approximately three quarters (74.4%) of Noel’s offense has been derived from the aforementioned play types, per Synergy Sports.

Though Noel solely operates primarily as a play-finisher, he does so with a high intellect, particularly as a cutter. When positioned along the baseline in the ‘dunkers spot’, Noel enables optimal spacing by constantly shifting to the opposite side of the floor of the ball handler. In doing so, the vertical threat Noel provides typically draws a help defender from the weakside corner, in turn freeing up a team mate on the perimeter. If the defensive doesn’t rotate, Noel is open for an easy bucket at the rim.

The inclusion of Marvin Bagley’s vertical spacing last season significantly helped the likes of Cunningham and Hayes navigate the painted area with greater success. Noel’s presence is sure to provide similar relief for Detroit’s young ball handlers.

He also provides offensive production by way of hustling the offensive glass. Noel’s wiry frame makes him a difficult player to box out. He was often able to rise over his opponent with his lengthy wingspan and corral the offensive board. In situations where he struggled to contain the ball, Noel would often elect to ‘back tap’ the pill back to a teammate on the perimeter:

In the past two seasons combined, Noel scored 94 of 409 total points from second-chance looks, accounting for a shade under 25% (22.3) of his scoring output. However, this doesn’t include the countless additional possessions created off of Noel’s ‘back tap’ rebounds.

In terms of pick and roll production, Noel provides a viable option for the slew of ball handlers on the roster. While injury has removed a portion of his athleticism, the former lottery pick is still able to finish at a decent clip as the roll man. However, if he’s not finishing the play with a look at the rim, Noel doesn’t offer much in the way of passing or shot creation. The 28 year-old also has a tendency to struggle maintaining possession of the ball when rolling toward the basket. Per Synergy Sports, Noel gave the ball away 17.6% of the time in plays where he was the roll man, ranking 254th out of 258 players.

While his spot in the rotation likely won’t be clear until preseason, Noel’s addition to the roster is a welcomed one. With Bagley and Duren also on the roster, Detroit is not short of rim running bigs, something the line-up was devoid of a season ago. Piston fans can expect Noel to feature in the rotation in the upcoming campaign, while this years 18-year-old lottery pick, Jalen Duren, grows accustomed with the rigours of life in the NBA.

Thanks to Motor City Hoops, Bryce Simon for the in-depth film breakdown, be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel HERE.