In the NBA, it can be tough to come off the bench, particularly when you’re playing for a massive contract extension.
In the Dallas Mavericks’ 117-111 season-opening loss to the Atlanta Hawks, it didn’t seem to bother center Nerlens Noel.
The fourth-year pro finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks.
One of the knocks against Noel is that he can be passive for a guy with his type of size and length. It wasn’t always pretty, especially on offense, but on Wednesday night at the American Airlines Center, the athletic forward showed a new-found confidence in the paint.
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“I’ve been putting myself in the mindset to go after everything and be assertive, in and out of my space,” Noel said. “The minutes are going to come. I just need to hunt down everything ... we also need to play better.”
Noel’s play came at a good time as veteran starter Dirk Nowitzki finished with 10 points on four of 14 shooting.
Noel’s early returns were strong.
Halfway through the first quarter, Noel blocked a shot, ran the length of the floor, slammed home an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer, made his free-throw and drew a technical foul on frustrated Atlanta forward Kent Bazemore.
In addition to sharing the team scoring lead with rookie sensation Dennis Smith Jr., Noel made six of six shots from the field and all six of his free throws in nearly 20 minutes.
“I probably played him for too long for a stretch and tired him out, but he was playing so well it was hard to get him off the floor at that point,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.
Noel’s 2-minute absence just before the end of the first half allowed the Hawks to go on a 13-2 run and take a 58-47 halftime lead. The Mavericks also missed his defensive presence in the game’s closing minute, as Dewayne Dedmon scored on a crucial offensive rebound as the Hawks closed out the win.
“When Powell went in he was doing good things on offense, but we didn’t have the same rim protection and we got hurt on the boards a little bit,” Carlisle said.
It’s possible that all Noel needed was a fresh start. In 2013, he was drafted sixth overall and spent the first three years of his career playing for an incredibly young Philadelphia 76ers’ franchise that struggled to find its way.
Right before the close of last year’s trade deadline, Philadelphia shipped Noel to Dallas. In his first 22 games with the Mavericks, things never quite clicked, as he averaged a pedestrian 22 minutes and 8.6 points per game.
This past summer, a competitive market for his services never materialized and he returned to the Mavericks on a one-year, $4.1 million-dollar deal in late August. The message from general managers around the league, including the Mavericks front office was clear: you’ve still got work to do.
Whether Noel can maintain this level of production and secure a major payday remains to be seen. For now, even in a loss, the change of scenery and a greater familiarity with his second team might allow him to take another major step forward in his career.
“It felt great to come out here and have a season opener in Dallas with these guys, these established veterans,” Noel said. “It’s something that I haven’t been able to do early in my career, and to come out here and feel this vibe, it was special.”
Peter Dawson: 817-390-7657