Detroit Pistons season preview: Nerlens Noel is in Detroit to protect the paint and be Jalen Duren’s “Looper”


It’s been a wild ride for professional basketball player Nerlens Noel since entering the NBA in the 2013 draft. ESPN’s No. 1-rated prospect, Noel showcased his advanced defensive abilities and instincts in his only year at the Kentucky, highlighted by a British record in a single 12-block match during a performance in January against Ole Miss. A few weeks later, Noel’s college career would come to an end due to a torn ACL suffered in a February game against Florida.

Noel was the presumed first choice in 2013 NBA Draft before the injury, and he was still considered the go-to favorite when the Cleveland Cavaliers walked to the podium. Instead, the Cavs infamously selected UNLV forward Anthony Bennett, forcing Noel to fall on the scoreboard before ultimately being selected sixth overall speak New Orleans Pelicans.

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

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

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In 2020, Noel signed a one-year contract with the New York Knicks, where he was a defensive part for a team that ranked in the top 10 defensive ratings in the NBA. He turned his impressive defensive performance into a three-year, $32 million contract with the Knicks. He only played 25 games in the first year of that contract, and the Knicks traded him to the Detroit Pistons in an effort to open up enough salary space for the team to sign Jalen Brunson.

Fit with Detroit

When the news broke Noel and Alec Burks were shipped from New York to Detroit, many Pistons fans assumed it was a Kemba Walker-style pay dump that would involve major asset projects in Detroit. In reality, Noel and Burks are still pretty good and on team-friendly offers. Essentially, Troy Weaver was doing a bit of shopping as a free agent in the trade market.

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It was clear how easily Burks, a multi-position defender who can hit 3s, would fit into 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 best suited for the center position. While it was a dream come true for Troy Weaver – notorious central fanatic — that brought more than a few questions for the Pistons’ next rotation.

These questions have been clarified a bit in recent weeks, mainly due to the trade that saw Detroit ship Olynyk and Saben Lee to Utah in exchange for veteran shooter Bojan Bogdanovic. The trade, along with the Pistons’ apparent intent to give Stewart and Bagley the vanguard position, further clarifies the role Noel would play in Detroit. Then, when Bagley suffered a knee injury during the Pistons’ preseason game against the Thunder on October 11, Noel’s services suddenly felt much more needed.

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While it’s easy to figure out what Detroit will ask Noel to do on the floor, it’s much less clear how often they’ll call on Noel to do it. Personally, I thought Noel might 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 in forward positions, Noel would make a lot of sense as a rim protector and window cleaner in this lineup, although that would likely require head coach Dwane Casey to do so. plays as a drop defender.

With the current “change everything” defensive scheme Casey seems determined to stick with, Stewart is much more likely to start the season as a starting center. Regardless, there are no signs that Stewart will be on the bench anytime soon and Noel is still working to recover from a foot injury that kept him out for the final two months of last season. When Noel returns, he’ll likely 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 resemble what he’s been asked to do for his entire NBA career. It’s for protecting paint, planting boards, laying down spikes and catching lobs. Easy enough for a veteran who spent nine years honing his craft. However, Nerlens Noel’s job description this season goes far beyond his duties on the pitch. As DBB’s Lazarus Jackson so eloquently said in a recent podcast with Hardwood Knocks:

“Nerlens’ main goal is to be, like, Jalen Duren’s ‘Looper.’

While the Laz track identified Noel’s firing of his agent just before restricted free agency as a way for Duren to learn NOT to be like Noel (good call, Laz), Noel truly possesses veteran wisdom that ‘he can transmit to Duren, like Noel once was. as Duren as a young player with a similar skill set, looking to make his way through the league.

It seems Weaver identified this as an advantage when negotiating Noel, and for Duren to start his career behind a more polished veteran to show him the ropes seems like a perfect way to jump-start his development. It would be in Duren’s interest to absorb as much insight from Noel as possible, as few know the intricacies of rim protection at the NBA level as well as Noel. While Noel can certainly still be a valuable part of an NBA rotation when he’s healthy, it’s the most important asset he can bring to the Pistons this season.

Having Duren under his tutelage isn’t the only way Noel can 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 at the trade deadline. In Burks, Bogdanovic, Noel and others, the Pistons have veterans who could be coveted by competing teams later in the season. The organization is adamant that young guys are best served surrounded by talented veterans, which is true, but chances are Weaver wouldn’t object to flipping some veteran talent for future actives at the trade deadline.

While Burks and Bogdanovic both have skills that could be invaluable to a contending team, for my money, Noel is the player most likely to be shipped off at the deadline. It’s unlikely opposing GMs have forgotten just how effective Noel was as a cog in the 2020-21 Knicks defense. If he can muster a good portion of wholesome basketball for the Pistons, he should be coveted by any rival team lacking rim protection. In an ideal world, Duren will be ready to fully take on Christmas minutes before the trade deadline, giving Detroit the luxury of returning Noel for a few goodies once that time comes.

Broadly speaking, Noel’s role in this young Pistons team will be threefold:

  1. Be a role model for young players, specifically take Jalen Duren 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, experienced presence in the field whenever you need it
  3. Get healthy, stay healthy, and rebuild business value through field production

It’s fair to assume that Noel and the Pistons organization have a mutual understanding that Noel is here for a good while, not a long time. This should suit both parties perfectly. But that doesn’t mean he can’t add value to his time with the organization.

In the short term, the Pistons need him on the court. Bagley’s injury has been a blow and Duren is not ready to take on a full charge from the start. In the long run, Noel can make his impact felt by mentoring Duren and the other rookies, as well as possibly providing the Pistons with additional assets by rebuilding his value and being shipped off to a competitor.

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

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