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Nerlens Noel makes case to stay in Mavs' starting lineup

DALLAS -- Nerlens Noel could be presenting Rick Carlisle the kind of problem any coach would want to have, as long as the Dallas Mavericks' new big man can arrive at the airport on time.

Noel’s first start for the Mavs was delayed a couple of days due to his tardiness in getting to the team plane before this week’s trip to Atlanta. He made up for it with his performance in Friday night’s 104-100 win over the playoff-bound Memphis Grizzlies.

Noel, acquired by Dallas from the Philadelphia 76ers at a discount price in a trade-deadline-day deal, was a major force on both ends of the floor against the Grizzlies. His line: 15 points, a career-high-tying 17 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, a steal and plus-10.

Pretty impressive for a 22-year-old kid whose head is spinning as he tries to digest as much of Carlisle’s massive playbook as possible, not to mention the directions to find the team’s private jet at Love Field.

What’s the problem? Well, the Mavs might have more deserving starters than spots on the floor once Wesley Matthews is fully recovered from his hip injury, which could be as soon as Sunday.

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” Carlisle said. “I think it is a good situation.”

Carlisle hasn’t determined what he’s going to do once Matthews, who has missed the last two games, is ready to return. Carlisle has made it clear that he doesn’t consider bringing the face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki off the bench to be a good option. Maybe that’s a transition Nowitzki will make over the summer, but it’s not happening this season. Rest assured that Harrison Barnes and Matthews will be in the starting lineup, although their positions are flexible.

It stands to reason that Seth Curry, who had a team-high 24 points against the Grizzlies to bump his post-break scoring average to 23.6, is secure with a starting spot. After all, the Mavs are 14-9 since Curry became a starter at shooting guard on a regular basis, and his efficient offense has been a huge factor in their midseason turnaround.

The Mavs plan for reigning West Rookie of the Month Yogi Ferrell to have the opportunity to start at point guard the rest of the season. It makes sense to put him in a position to continue to develop and allow the coaches and front office an opportunity to evaluate Ferrell (17 points, five assists Friday) as much as possible for the rest of the season.

Nowitzki has started at center with Barnes at power forward for the vast majority of that stretch, and those are the ideal positions for the Mavs’ two best players at this point. Barnes, in particular, has blossomed as a go-to guy during his first season in Dallas in large part because he’s been so effective running the old Dirk iso playbook as a power forward.

But Barnes noted there is a bright side if he sees significant playing time at small forward, his primary position during his stint with the Golden State Warriors. His primary offensive duties with the Warriors were “keeping the lights on with the corner 3,” as he put it. When he plays small forward with the Mavs, he’s often asked to operate as a pick-and-roll ball handler, a new challenge for him.

“It’s still an area I need improving on, but it’s good,” Barnes said. “The iso part, I’ve got a lot of reps at. I’ve done that, so now pick-and-roll is my next step.”

The next step for Noel is keeping his nose in Carlisle’s playbook. He’s essentially cramming for a basketball calculus exam on a daily basis now.

“It’s huge. It’s crazy,” Noel said. “They’re telling me I’m barely learning half of it right now.”

Nowitzki and Noel’s other new teammates occasionally need to push him toward the right spots on offense. They can deal with the big man making mistakes, whether it’s calling the wrong defensive coverage or not running a play properly, as long as he’s going 100 miles per hour.

Besides, Noel’s instincts, length and athleticism can make up for a lot of mistakes. You can live with a learning curve when a guy can make plays like rejecting Marc Gasol at the rim or throwing down a lob in traffic after setting a screen and diving to the rim.

“Playing with energy is contagious,” Noel said. “It puts you in a position to really change the game.”

Noel has put Carlisle in a position to consider changing the starting lineup on a permanent basis.