When will the Thunder unleash Nerlens Noel?

A look at how the Oklahoma City Thunder are currently using Nerlens Noel, and what they could do to increase his role to emphasis what he does well.

The Oklahoma City Thunder got off to a slow start, dropping their first 4 games, but since have won nine of 10. An early injury to Russell Westbrook forced him to miss seven out of the team's first 14 games.

With Russell's absence, the Thunder have had increased contributions from bench players like Hamidou Diallo, Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines, and mainly Nerlens Noel.

Nerlens Noel is currently averaging 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, while only playing 14.0 minutes per game. If that holds up until the end of the season, Noel will be the first player since 1986 to average these numbers while playing less than 19 minutes per game. It should be noted that Noel is playing 5 minutes less than the 19 minutes allocated for this particular stat.

In Noel's only opportunity as a starter for the Thunder, Noel contributed 20 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 steals in only 26 minutes of work. This start was the consequence of a calf injury that sidelined usual starter, Steven Adams. In that game, the Thunder won handily against the Phoenix Suns 117-110 (the Suns outscored the Thunder 34-21 in the 4th to make it look closer than the game actually was). Other than that starting opportunity, Noel has been delegated to a bench role that has never seen him play more than 16 minutes.

While being one of the Thunder's most potent bench options, Noel has tested well on the analytical side as well. Noel has posted a 1.1 offensive box plus-minus and a 6.2 defensive box plus-minus which is astronomically high for an everyday player. If Noel can perform like this in limited minutes, what could he do with more of them?

Obviously, if Noel is given more minutes, his efficiency numbers will more than likely decrease as you cannot play as hard for 35 minutes as you can when you only play 14 minutes. But that doesn't mean that Noel couldn't be as effective in around 23 minutes as he is in 14 minutes.

The problem is finding more minutes for Noel, as they are hard to come by for Thunder bigs. Steven Adams is the clear superior player, with his screening ability, and ability to cause opposing centers fits as they try to keep up with the bruising nature of the seven foot - 265 pound Adams.

Patrick Patterson has the ability to hit threes (38.6% this season), something that Noel can't do. The Thunder currently rank 29th in threes in the NBA, a struggle point for them so far.

This gluttony of formidable bigs have made it tough for coach Billy Donovan to give more opportunities and minutes to Noel, but seeing his effectiveness in the small amount of minutes he plays should give Thunder fans hope if Adams ever is injured or needs rest.

This year the Thunder are doing something that they didn't last year: they are beating bad teams, and they're doing it without much trouble. Last year, we saw the Thunder drop games to the Magic, Nets, Hornets, Pistons, Mavericks, and Suns. This year they're taking care of business and beating up on these teams early and often, already beating the Cavaliers, Suns (twice), Wizards, and Knicks.

Noel missed the Thunders most recent game due to illness, one that saw them lose to the Sacramento Kings 117-113. In the loss, the Thunder failed to protect the paint, allowing the Kings to score at will during the minutes when Adams was off the floor and Noel is usually on.

Games against weaker teams around the NBA should be an opportunity for the Thunder to rest Adams more and give some of his minutes to Noel, something that the Thunder may ultimately end up doing. Adams is currently averaging 33.4 MPG, something that can wear down the big man during a long 82 game season, plus playoffs. This right here is the perfect storm for Billy Donovan to offer more minutes to a surging Noel, giving him the platform to show off his shot-blocking prowess and his ability to finish alley-oops with authority.

Last Summer, Noel signed a "prove it" 2-year contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, with a player-option on the second year. This gave him the flexibility to opt out of the contract if he performs to the level everybody knew he once had when he was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft.

While it may end up being one season in Oklahoma City for Nerlens Noel, it has been an absolute pleasure to see him dominate second units on both ends of the floor so far.

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