2019 Summer Feature Series: Nerlens Noel
Back in April, Thunder center Nerlens Noel said he was anticipating a big summer in the weight room, aiming to “come back a monster.” That sounded great to Thunder fans, but the question was whether he would be frightening opponents that dared walk into Chesapeake Energy Arena or be coming back as a foe in a different uniform.
In July all that was settled as Noel re-signed with the Thunder for another season to roam the paint and run the floor. On Sunday he found himself in the arena doing something else – shooting three-pointers. At the Rookie Season Ticket Member party, Noel played a game of knockout against a dozen kids and teenagers, all launching from the top of the key. First-year season ticket holders for the 2019-20 season got a behind the scenes look at the Thunder experience and Noel’s presence was the icing on the cake.
“When I heard about (the event) I definitely wanted to stop by,” Noel said. “Just the atmosphere, I love the fans of Oklahoma City. I’ve been saying since I got here how special and passionate that they are. That’s something I’ve always appreciated. That helps me, that helps my game to have fans that are behind you and support you.”
Watch: Rookie Season Ticket Member Party
Noel’s return to the Thunder, with an adoring 18,203 people at his back, shouldn’t be understated. In 13.7 minutes per game last year, Noel averaged 4.9 points and 4.2 rebounds to go with 1.2 blocks, while shooting 58.7 percent from the field, the second-best mark in his career. Per-36 minutes, Noel’s impact was fantastic – similar to the per-36-minute production of Steven Adams and other top-rate centers across the NBA.
I want to go to the next level defensively because that is my bread and butter.
With a combination of size (6-foot-11), quickness and leaping ability, the 25-year-old Noel gives the Thunder a unique presence. On offense, the Thunder can utilize Noel as one of those gashing rollers to basket that keeps the entire opposing defense honest. Defensively, he can guard multiple positions, be disruptive on the perimeter and still recover to protect the rim. Despite finishing third in the NBA in blocks-per-36 minutes last season, Noel also managed to disrupt a bunch of shots by just being at the rim to deter them from even being attempted.
“You’ve done your job and you haven’t even had to get off the floor,” Noel quipped. “You just make eye contact and they turn around. This league has a lot of great players and you always have to be on your ones and twos. As good as you are defensively, you can never be good enough.”
Overall last season the Thunder was number five in defensive rating, and the team had a 101.7 defensive rating with Noel on the floor, the best figure of any consistent member of the rotation.
“He was a big factor in our defense being what it was,” Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti said.
“I always want to go to the next level defensively because that is my bread and butter. That’s what’s going to help me help my team take it to the next level,” said Noel.
This offseason, the Thunder center has been playing some one on one of his own, with the birth of his second son about six weeks ago. Noel’s son is sleeping a little more, five or six hours straight now, and Nerlens is alternating between naps, workouts and changing diapers.
“All the daddies and mommas know how that is,” Noel grinned.
There are new beginnings for the Thunder family as well, with Noel suddenly serving as one of the most experienced players with 5 full NBA seasons under his belt at age 25. Noel will have a pair of former Kentucky Wildcats with him in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo. He’ll also be alongside four fellow players (Steven Adams, Dennis Schröder, Andre Roberson and Mike Muscala) who were selected in the 2013 Draft, giving the group a mix of energetic verve and solid experience.
“This team is a little younger than previous teams but I think it’s something to be excited about,” Noel noted. “There’s a lot of young guys that are able to go out there and make some exciting basketball happen. These Rookie (STM) fans are definitely in store for something special. This organization has all the right intentions. I think great things are going to happen this year.”
To get prepared for the season, Noel has actually expanded the skill he was refining on Sunday – the three-point shot – in addition to trying to refine his touch around the rim. When he’s not on the floor or in the weight room, Noel has been watching film, making sure to make the mental and leadership leaps to match the physical ones as well. Now that’s scary.