Here’s how well things are going for Nerlens Noel: the most notable thing about his 2017-18 season is that he has been compelled to address why he hit the media room at halftime of the Dallas Mavericks’ Saturday afternoon game against the Los Angeles Clippers to grab a hot dog.
Nerlens Noel on his halftime trip to grab a hot dog from the media room: “I needed some energy for the second half.” he was the only Maverick with a DNP.
— Tim Cato (@tim_cato) December 2, 2017
Nerlens Noel visited the media dining room at halftime to get a hot dog. pic.twitter.com/mKYrB63e1J
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 2, 2017
As it turned out, Noel wouldn’t need that “boost of energy.” The center didn’t get off the bench in the Mavs’ 108-92 home win over the Clips, marking the fourth straight game in which Dallas head coach Carlisle hasn’t called his number. He has not played more than six minutes in any game in nearly a month. Evidently, when the 23-year-old isn’t finding himself starved for tick, he’s become starved for encased meats.
“I heard the hot dogs were very good,” Carlisle joked with reporters after the game. “Hey, I may have had one, too. But I may have sent a ball boy.”
As former NBA player and current head basketball coach at the University of the Pacific Damon Stoudamire noted, this practice is not necessarily uncommon. It generated a lot of arched eyebrows and eye rolls on Saturday, though, so the Mavs decided to put Noel and Carlisle in front of the media to make sure that everyone knew it was no big deal.
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) December 3, 2017
“I just wanted to say, yesterday’s incident with the hot dogs,” Noel said. “I’ve just been going harder pre-game, lifting-wise, and got a little hungry. Different schedule. So, y’know, it obviously meant nothing.”
Why would anyone think it might mean something? Well, because this is the most action and attention Nerlens has seen in weeks.
The former No. 6 overall draft pick showed some enticing flashes as a rim-running paint protector last spring after the Dallas Mavericks imported him from the Philadelphia 76ers, looking like someone who could become a piece of an emerging core for the Mavericks’ future alongside forward Harrison Barnes and the team’s 2017 lottery pick, point guard Dennis Smith Jr. But Noel reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million deal Dallas offered, believing multiple maximum-salary contract offers were coming his way.
Despite changing agents in pursuit of a richer deal, those offers never materialized. Noel wound up signing his one-year, $4 million qualifying offer, allowing him to enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018 and placing a massive wager — $66 million guaranteed, if you’re keeping track — on Noel’s ability to produce at a level this season that would result in suitors backing up the Brinks truck come July. (Think Dion Waiters in Miami.)
To play well enough to open checkbooks, though, you’ve first got to play. Despite suiting up for a Mavericks team in transition that just about everybody expected to be bad this year, Noel began the season bouncing in and out of the starting lineup and struggling to earn consistent playing time, averaging just 18.6 minutes per game over Dallas’ first 10 outings. He hasn’t started since Nov. 3, hasn’t logged double-digit minutes since Nov. 4, and has racked up a handful of DNP-CDs over the past three weeks. Carlisle has judged Noel less effective and less worthy of minutes in the middle than Nowitzki, Salah Mejri, Dwight Powell and, in a pinch, Jeff Withey.
“Look, minutes have to be earned,” Carlisle said after Noel didn’t play against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 11. “At this point, if it’s between him and Salah, Salah has earned the minutes. There’s no doghouse here. There just isn’t. It’s pretty simple: You compete, and if you earn minutes, you get minutes. And you’ve got to compete to keep them, because it’s a competitive situation.”
It also seems an untenable one that’s not working for either player or team — the kind of situation that might lead a frustrated young player to send a message to his coach and front office about being unhappy with the status quo. From Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News, on Saturday:
“I’m doing everything I need to, staying in shape, continuing to work on my game and working on the little things,” Noel said. “It’s frustrating at times. But I think I got laser focus right now for what I want to do and where I want to be. I’m anxious to play. When that comes, it comes.”
But will that opportunity come in Dallas?
“I honestly have no idea,” he said.
Apparently, though, there was no message intended. Noel insisted Sunday that sometimes, a hot dog is just a hot dog.
“So, look, I’m representing him,” Carlisle told the media Sunday. “I’m going to go talk to Wild About Harry’s on Knox, it’s a hot dog place, and we’re going to see if they’ll do a Nerlens — The Nerlens, which is a relish-only [dog].”
Here’s hoping Noel’s new comedy partner can get the endorsement deal done before Dec. 15. If things keep going the way they have been, it doesn’t seem all that likely that Nerlens will be in Dallas much longer after that.
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