Knicks center Nerlens Noel gets license to shoot

New York Knicks center Nerlens Noel has only attempted 10 three-pointers and made two during his first nine seasons in the NBA. Last season, he was 0-of-3 from the three-point zone. That is about to change as Noel said he had received the green light to expand his game.

“It’s something that I’ve been working on. Being on one-year deals, you never know how much you can really do. Getting this comfortability with the situation even the day when I signed the contract, they told me to make it a conscious effort to make it a game shot and not just after practice,” Noel said Tuesday at the start of the NBA Training Camp.

Noel is entering the season for the first time in his career with his job and bag secured. After an ill-advised fumble in 2017 that led to an ongoing lawsuit and a series of one-year deals that came after, Noel re-signed with the Knicks on a three-year deal that could be worth up to $32 million if he hits bonuses and the last year getting picked up.

“It’s the best free agency I’ve ever experienced. I knew everything that’s going on. It’s beautiful. A good way to sum it up—the best one,” Noel said.

The stability has emboldened Noel to be a little adventurous this summer. And a part of it is for him to stay afloat beyond his current contract in the league that is constantly evolving.

As the modern game continues to cater to offense, shooting has become premium. Traditional big men are becoming obsolete. And despite possessing one elite skill set—rim protection, Noel doesn’t want to be left behind by the three-point revolution.

Last season, at least 10 centers averaged one three-pointer, per ESPN stats. Nikola Vucevic led all big men with 2.5 threes made on 6.3 attempts while splitting his time with his former team, Orlando Magic, and his new team, Chicago Bulls. Minnesota Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns, a former Tom Thibodeau player, was not far behind with 2.4 threes per game on the same 6.3 attempts despite being limited to just 50 games.

Former Knick Kristaps Porzingis, who has the same lean frame as Noel, averaged 2.3 threes on six attempts with the Dallas Mavericks last season.

But the top three three-point shooting big men were either the focal point or the secondary offensive option in their teams while averaging over 30 minutes per game.

It will be a stretch to say that Noel, who is likely the Knicks’ starting center while Mitchell Robinson is being eased back into the rotation, will enjoy such a shot diet with the addition of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier.

Noel attempted only 3.5 shots per game last season and made 61.4 percent of them, the bulk of it coming around the rim (68.5 percent, which was above the league average of 58.5 percent according to Stat Muse).

So an occasional three-pointer from Noel would be the more plausible scenario—the last option in the offense as much as he’s the last line on defense. Making him an outside threat could draw the opposing team’s last line of defense to come out.

“I’m trying to expand my game to that corner three. I’m definitely going to tread lightly coming in and seeing what it’s like but you know, I got the green light for the most part. So I just gotta keep getting the reps up and make sure it falls by game time and I’ll be able to implement that,” Noel said.

The three-point shot became an important weapon for the Knicks last season on their way to a surprising playoff run. But while they were the second-best team in three-point shooting accuracy (39.2 percent), they also threw the second-least attempts with just 30 per game, 13 fewer than the league-leading Utah Jazz.

According to Derrick Rose, the Knicks plan to bring that up to at least among the league’s top five.

“I think our staple [last season] was defense. Now that I feel like we got better on the offensive side of the ball, it’s about adding little things. Last year, we only shot 30 threes. This year, now we have three-point shooters. We gotta get up to 37 to 40 attempts,” Rose said Monday.

But Rose was quick to add that they will not take a three-pointer just for the sake of ramping up their shot attempts. That’s not Thibodeau’s style.

“I’m not saying we gotta force threes, but take the right threes and don’t pass up any good looks. Push the ball. I felt like last year, we didn’t push the ball. We needed to (push the pace) to get easy buckets and easy looks for Julius (Randle) to get him downhill or to get RJ (Barrett) going downhill to open up the floor for everybody,” Rose said.

The Knicks crave shooting in all positions.

Noel and Robinson provided elite rim protection to the Knicks last season.

Noel was third with 2.2 per game behind Indiana Pacers’ Myles Turner (3.4) and Jazz’s Rudy Gobert (2.7). Robinson was ninth with 1.5 and could have climbed up the ladder if he played in more games.

Turner also landed in the top 10 three-point shooting big men in the league. The Pacers center averaged 1.5 per game on 4.4 attempts, joining reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks’ Brook Lopez (1.4 threes on four shots) as the only big men in the league who offered elite rim protection and outside shooting.

Curiously, the Knicks were heavily linked to Turner in the past though nothing materialized. Perhaps the grand plan is to develop one if they couldn’t trade for a modern big man.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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