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Everyone wants to be wanted, including NBA players.
In the case of Nerlens Noel, lead dogs Russell Westbrook and Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder made it clear they wanted him as a teammate, calling him at the stroke of midnight when the NBA’s free-agency period began July 1.
And that’s all it took for the 6-foot-11, 228-pound big man to know he was heading to Oklahoma City, signing a two-year deal for the NBA minimum, the second year being a player option.
“[Westbrook and George] called the night of free agency when I was meeting with Coach Billy [Donovan],” Noel told Ben Nadreau of Basketball Insiders. “They told me, ‘let’s get it done and that we want to do some special things this year.’
“I definitely felt where they were coming from. I gave it a little thought and with as much love as they showed, it became an easy decision.”
Having spent three seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Noel was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, for whom he spent the last two seasons.
Noel had his worst NBA season of his career a year ago in Dallas. He underwent surgery on his left thumb to repair a torn ligament, missed 42 straight games and then had difficulties working his way back into coach Rick Carlisle’s rotation.
It resulted in Noel, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Kentucky by the New Orleans Hornets, putting up paltry numbers of 4.4 points and 5.6 boards in 15.7 minutes per game.
For his career, Noel has averaged 9.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals ad 1.4 blocked shots in 26.0 minutes, shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 62.4 percent from the free-throw line.
After playing 75 games as a rookie in 2015 for Philadelphia and 67 in 2016, Noel has not played more than 51 games since doing so in 2017 (29 for Philadelphia, 22 for Dallas).
However, Noel is still only 24-years-old, and he believes the best days of his career are certainly yet to come.
“I really think it’s a great opportunity,” Noel told reporters in an interview during the Las Vegas Summer League earlier this month. “I think it’s a great fit for myself and the organization. With the athleticism and the pieces that they have now, I think I can really come and make a significant difference to the speed of the game.
“It’s really been a great last few days, going to OKC, signing and just feeling very welcome from the whole organization — that really means a lot.”
Another blessing for Noel is he’s joining a team that has aspirations of more than just being a playoff squad next season.
“This is something I’ve been really wanting my whole life, just to be on a talented team that can really complement my skill set and really show what I’m really about and go out on the court and play my game with no hesitation,” Noel said. “Coach Billy has given me the utmost confidence since I’ve been talking to him day-by-day.
“Just go out there and play your game. There’s nothing in it besides basketball and just being yourself — I felt very accepted.”
In addition to Noel, the Thunder also landed point guard Dennis Schroder in the deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to Atlanta. With Westbrook running the show at the point, Schroder is expected to anchor OKC’s second unit, where Noel is also expected to roam with Steven Adams as the established man in the middle for the Thunder
That hasn’t dampened Noel’s enthusiasm to be joining Westbrook, George & Co. in Oklahoma City.
“It’s rejuvenating — I’ve been just working all summer trying to get my mind right for whatever situation I come into,” Noel said. “Thank God it’s the OKC Thunder. They got a great group of guys from Westbrook to PG leading the team to all these young guys out here — Hami [Diallo], from Kentucky, [Terrance] Ferguson — really some great pieces that can come up that they already have.
“It’s really a complete team that is really going to do some special things this year.”