The experienced but winless Oklahoma City Thunder faced a youthful Phoenix Suns team without their ace on Sunday evening and looked to take advantage of that on their home court.
A victory appeared probable leading up to tip-off, but the last-minute news of Steven Adams sitting out with stiffness in his left calf left Thunder fans skeptical of what was to come. Nerlens Noel was Adams’ replacement but his unproven, inconsistent play throughout his career left room for question, especially going up against Phoenix’s No. 1 pick, DeAndre Ayton.
No reason to fret, though. Noel started the game with extreme confidence on both ends of the court and treated the highly-touted top pick like the rookie he is and not only did he build his confidence moving forward, he may have jump-started a campaign to be the Thunder’s starting power forward.
Along with the starting shooting guard position, the starting forward job has been up for grabs, especially with both Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson playing inconsistently to start the season. In certain situations, against certain teams, Noel at the fourth spot in the starting lineup would make for a lethally athletic and defensive-minded starting lineup that would outmatch most NBA backcourts. His athletic, agile playing style alongside the physical, old-school playing style of Adams would be an outright terror for the majority of NBA teams.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) October 29, 2018
Granted, Noel being the backup center is ideal because of team balance. Putting him in the starting lineup indefinitely would damage that chemistry because the only option for a backup center to Adams would be Grant or Patterson, who are exclusive to the power forward position. Against certain teams, though, Noel would be beneficial for the Thunder in the starting lineup.
His playing style also resembles a power forward, so this isn’t far-fetched. Standing at a lanky 6-foot-11, 210 pounds, he honestly doesn’t have the frame of an NBA center. He’s also capable of defending on the perimeter, can handle the ball and shoot at a respectable clip from mid-range. More importantly, his athleticism is a close match to Grant and he’s honestly more in control. Not to mention, he’s by far a more complete defensive option than both Grant (who’s very good defensively) and Patterson.
Against the Suns, Noel tallied 20 points, 15 rebounds, four steals and one block with Ayton as his primary defender. In addition to that, he held the highest plus/minus on the team at +19 for the game.
Noel also held Ayton to 16 points on 47 percent shooting, significantly lower than his near 70 percent average from the field in this young season. Ayton’s double-double looks great on paper, but six of those points came in the fourth quarter when Noel was retired for the night. The same goes for rebounds.
Steven Adams should be back on Tuesday evening against the Los Angeles Clippers so Noel’s numbers may not be as gaudy, but now everyone knows first-hand that he’s capable if called upon. And if Billy Donovan ever wants to mix things up and throw an opposing team a curveball, he can confidently do so by inserting Noel into the starting lineup at the power forward position.