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Former Sixers center Nerlens Noel making strong case for big free-agent contract

The 76ers will face their former big man Saturday. The Mavericks like his game, but a tough contract negotiation looms.

Nerlens Noel is an active defender, here slowing down Memphis’ Marc Gasol en route to the basket.
Nerlens Noel is an active defender, here slowing down Memphis’ Marc Gasol en route to the basket.Read moreBrandon Dill / AP

MEMPHIS — Less than four minutes into the game, it became obvious why the Dallas Mavericks acquired Nerlens Noel in a trade with the 76ers in February. It also became obvious why Noel felt compelled to turn down the Mavs' four-year, $70 million contract offer. His level of play will tell you he's worth more than that.

Noel won't wow you statistically on most nights.  But there's an obvious difference in the Mavs' level of play when he's on the floor.

The Sixers (1-4) will see for themselves Saturday night, when they visit Noel and Dallas (1-5) at American Airlines Center.

"It's going to be great to play against those guys that I was real close with — Joel [Embiid], Ben [Simmons], the whole team really," said Noel, who finished with five points, eight rebounds, and two assists in less than 20 minutes of play Thursday.

"I'm familiar with everybody," Noel added about the Sixers. "So it's going to be a special game just like last year, but treat it like any other game. Go in there, chip on your shoulder, ready to play and defend our home court."

The Mavericks were a completely different team when Noel was on the floor  Thursday night. They lost, 96-91, to the Grizzlies, but they outscored Memphis by 11 when Noel was in the game.

‘He really fits today’s NBA’

Dallas led, 8-6, when Noel left the game with his second foul at the 8:51 mark of the first quarter. The Grizzlies immediately went on a 17-2 run and had a 54-35 halftime advantage as foul trouble limited Noel to just over four minutes in the first half. But with Noel staying out of foul trouble after intermission, the Mavs pulled within one point three times late in the fourth quarter.

The Dallas coaches gave the impression that they would prefer to have the 6-foot-11, 214-pound (by his own admission) Noel continuing to defend their home court for seasons to come. They yelled things like "Good job, Nerlens" and "Way to fight through it, Nerlens" in what was his second straight start and third of the season.

Though he didn't get credit for steals, Noel twice dislodged the ball from Memphis post players with his quick hands. His defensive presence led to the Grizzlies' having their heads on a swivel and not taking certain shots. He was also a beast on the offensive glass, where he snagged five of his rebounds.

And as Memphis' Jarrell Martin learned, Noel has a move in which he puts the ball on the floor and spins by a defender on his way to a layup. His other basket came while drawing a foul on a reverse layup under the basket. He converted the three-point play.

Those are the offensive skills the Mavs are getting used to seeing. The 23-year-old opened the season by making his first 10 field goals. He is averaging 8.0 points on 64.3 percent shooting to go with 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.0 block in 19.0 minutes. He's also shooting 80 percent from the foul line.

Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said Noel's motor is the thing that stands out the most.

"It's just so quick-twitch and so fast and so vertical," Fizdale said. "He's just long and talented. He really fits today's NBA."

That's why Noel basically forced the Sixers to trade him. He wanted this opportunity to be a starter. But with the Sixers, he had to settle for being a role-playing backup, if that, to the franchise center and his close friend, Joel Embiid. At one point last season, he was also listed behind Jahlil Okafor on the depth chart.

"I like him a lot," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "He's extremely active. He's one of the best rollers to the basket in the game. He can put up big rebounding numbers. He can legitimately protect the rim. Offensively, his game evolves every year. …

"We just encourage all of our guys to [home] in on something that's a real definable skill and really be dependent upon. And with him, it's his defense, rebounding position, and his screening and rolling ability. It's one of the engines that drive our game."

Money battles ahead

Noel's representation and the Mavs need to find a common ground if he is to remain in Dallas past this season. He will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. If he continues to play well, the Mavs had better hope Noel doesn't hold a grudge and sign elsewhere, since the Mavs pulled their four-year offer once he asked for a max deal. With no offers from the league's other 29 teams, he was forced to accept the Mavs' one-year qualifying offer of $4.1 million.

"I want to focus on the year and let everything play out and just leave it up to my representation," Noel said of being asked about possibly re-signing in Dallas.

Was he crazy for turning down the Mavs' offer of $17.5 million per season? Money that Noel might not ever be offered again?

He has heard those questioning his state of mind in making that decision, which magnified after he fired agent Happy Walters and hired Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Paul also represents LeBron James and Ben Simmons, among others. While Paul is regarded as one of the more powerful agents, Noel's role as a situational player could hurt his leverage in the negotiations. He's expected to start at center and Dirk Nowitzki at power forward against the Sixers.

"I'm very confident in my capabilities, my abilities," Noel said of gambling on himself. "I know when I'm out there, I can really change the game at any given moment with the right style of play, etc."

The Massachusetts native added that he's getting more adept in the Mavericks' system. As the Sixers did, Dallas encourages him to take advantage of his athleticism by sprinting rim to rim.

"The coaches are slowly putting me in good spots to show my capabilities throughout the longest stretch," he said, "But I feel good."

Family values

Noel hasn't dropped the trademark smile he displayed during his three-plus years in Philadelphia before being shipped to Dallas for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and two second-round picks.

Before Thursday's game, Noel spoke of being delighted that his mother, Dorcina, and brother, Rodman, moved to Dallas last week to live with him. Noel believes it's good to have family members with him during what is a crucial time in his career. There were no signs Thursday of someone going through a difficult time because of an uncertain NBA future.

"With everything we've been through in Philly, I'm damn near built for this at this point," he said of living through the tanking, injuries, and demotions. "So I'm trying to take it day by day. I've been through a lot, even through college [with a season-ending ACL tear at Kentucky].

"I just say I'm a strong person."