GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL
It was rather apropos Wednesday when Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle matter-of-factly mentioned that center Nerlens Noel, an Everett native, needed left thumb surgery and will miss several weeks.
It was an afterthought during his media session before the Mavericks faced the Celtics at TD Garden, just as Noel has been an afterthought during what was expected to be a pivotal season in the defensive ace’s career.
Instead, Noel, acquired last season by Dallas with the hope he would develop into an impact center, has sat most of the season, having little success in the final year of his contract. Noel turned down a long-term extension with the Mavericks, instead accepting the team’s qualifying offer of $4.18 million for the 2017-18 season.
With Noel becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer and the Mavericks in the process of rebuilding, it doesn’t serve the organization’s best interest to play Noel if he’s headed elsewhere over other centers under the team’s control for multiple years.
So Noel entered Wednesday having played in 18 of Dallas’s 24 games, with just six starts, averaging 12.5 minutes. His frontcourt minutes have been soaked up by Maxi Kleber, Salah Mejri, and Dwight Powell — a sizable dropoff from the former University of Kentucky star who was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Noel missed his first season with the Philadelphia 76ers because of a torn left anterior cruciate ligament. He made strides in his first two seasons on the court for the 76ers, but the team then drafted fellow big men Joel Embiid (2014) and Jahlil Okafor (2015), essentially pushing Noel out of a job.
The Mavericks acquired Noel in February for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a second-round pick to become their younger, more athletic version of Tyson Chandler. Trying to fit into Carlisle’s complicated system, Noel averaged 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 22 minutes per game to finish off last season.
There was talk of a mega-contract extension and Noel getting long-term security with the Mavericks. But he turned down a four-year deal and bet on himself. The Mavericks, building for the future, decided to invest time and effort in other players.
“I can sit here and say it’s been tough but I don’t look at it like that,” Noel said. “I’m in the position where I have to keep things simplified, go day by day and look for the positives . . . and that’s working out. I look forward to working out before games. When I’m inactive, I go a little harder.”
Noel became the focus of some ribbing when, at halftime of a Dec. 2 home game, he walked into the media dining area and grabbed a hot dog. Noel didn’t play in the game but was criticized for the snack break.
The incident has been a reflection of his difficult times in Dallas.
“I hoped everybody laughed,” Noel said of the hot dog debate. “But it’s being my mama’s son, she was strong. She had willpower, not letting little things affect her. I’m her son and I try to go off mental willpower and make sure I keep everything simple and focused on the task at hand, and making sure I get better and better.”
Carlisle didn’t announce Noel’s surgery until late in his eight-minute media session.
“Look, he’s a part of this team,” Carlisle said. “He’s been very professional with the exception of the hot dog incident the other night, which we have all had fun with. That’s over with now. He realized that was a mistake. Our No. 1 priority as a franchise is to get him 100 percent healthy and let’s go from there.”
It has been difficult for Noel to watch some of his contemporaries flourish while he sits with an uncertain future. Noel, who is just 23 years old, should be an attractive free agent next summer — a defensive-minded center who can run the floor and thrive in an up-tempo system — but this season could damage his résumé and potential contract.
“He could have been disruptive, he wasn’t,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “He could have been down and dragged some of his teammates down. He wasn’t, just the opposite. In one of the most difficult situations in a contract year for him, he’s been beyond professional. He’s cheering his teammates on. Yeah, he’s disappointed but this could have gone 100 different ways and 99 of them were bad and Nerlens took the direction that was the positive one. I give him a ton of credit.”
So Noel, who has not played since Nov. 22, will have surgery in Cleveland, miss at least six weeks, and then return to an uncertain future.
“Obviously there’s a whole other side [of basketball life] you don’t face until you get to the NBA,” he said. “I’m not really too worried. I know I’m in a great place [mentally]. And what keeps me in that great place is knowing I can step on any court at any time and change the game. That really keeps me confident. I’ll just continue to work through everything.”
Noel collected 13 tickets for family and friends for his lone visit to Boston. He took shots before the game in his practice jersey, and appears at peace, hoping for a fresh opportunity soon.
“I’m a strong person,” he said. “You can’t really change the reality of things. I remind myself of that, work on what I’ve got to work on, and keep life moving on.”
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