If it were not for February 12, Nerlens Noel would know exactly where he would be drafted. This is the guy that was the runaway favorite to be the top pick in the Draft from the moment he stepped foot on campus in Lexington -- and probably beforehand.
Noel was the super athletic, shot-blocking and defensive machine that NBA teams dream about protecting the rim. He looked like a young Ben Wallace with the crazy hairdo (the flat top is back again?) and the will to change a game defensively (albeit at the college level).
February 12 changed everything though.
Nerlens Noel came crashing down to the floor after running into the basket stanchion trying to do the thing that had separated him from the rest of his potential draft class -- coming from behind and blocking a shot. The will and desire was there and shown in his play. The agony and pain was shown in that next moment when he clutched his knee on the floor in Gainesville.
A torn ACL is not a death sentence in sports anymore. But it is still a gruesome injury that leaves more questions than answers for athletes, particularly when they go from the unpaid ranks of the NCAA to the professional level of the NBA.
Noel will not be ready to play in any meaningful action until December. Maybe even later (see: Rose, Derrick). There are both reports of how far ahead of schedule he is and also how far behind. It seems like one of the surer things in this Draft which was not considered strong at the top to begin with has turned into one of its bigger mysteries.
He was good at Kentucky, particularly on the defensive end. Scouts knew that he would use his athleticism to dominate games on that end and that offense would come slowly. He met expectations. Then the injury happened. And the inescapable questions that come after a major injury ensued.
The Good: The good with Noel is pretty easy to see. He already has made an impact defensively at the college level in a way few big men have. You just have to watch a point guard's eyes as they drive into the lane to see this impact.
I was at that fateful game against Florida and before Noel went down with the injury, I could see firsthand the effect Noel had on Florida's incredibly strong offense. Noel was on everyone's mind. Whenever Scott Wilbekin or Kenny Boynton tried to drive the lane, they would hold up some in the paint to make sure they knew where Noel was and did not rush into a blocked shot. In 23 minutes of that game, Noel had six rebounds and three blocks and probably changed countless others.
Noel had that kind of clear effect on a Sweet Sixteen-caliber squad and had that effect throughout his one year at Kentucky. He averaged 4.4 blocks per game and 9.5 rebounds per game for the Wildcats last year, providing a huge inside presence which the team sorely missed when he went out. He posted a 21.7 percent defensive rebound rate, which was good for fourth in the SEC.
More amazingly, his 12.9 percent block percentage was 12th in the nation. Add in that motor to run the floor and chase down blocks and to get fast break points and Noel is certainly a talented player with tremendous upside to build off of.
The Bad: Aside from that nagging ACL issue, Noel is still very limited with what he can do offensively. He averaged only 10.5 points per game last season. It was a point of pride that he scored at least 10 points in three consecutive games before the injury at Florida and four of the previous five games. The team that drafts Noel has to be aware they will get very little offense from him.
So that leaves the gamble on Noel completely on his defense. This is where the ACL injury begins to creep in.
While Noel is extremely athletic (when healthy, again), his frame is very slight. He weighs only 228 pounds according to StatSheet.com and has very narrow shoulders. This is not like Dwight Howard who was skinny but had a wide shoulder base to strengthen from. Noel is much slimmer and there are questions about how much weight he can put on.
Go back to those rebounding numbers I cited previously. Noel is a good rebounder, but his numbers still leave something to be desired. Noel only posted a 10.2 offensive rebound percentage. For a reference, Nikola Vucevic had a 12.0 percent offensive rebound rate and a 28.4 percent defensive rebound rate last year. He had a 21.7 defensive rebound rate his rookie year. Noel still has improvement to show on the glass. If he is goingt o be a defensive-first player, he has to prove he can clean the glass at a better rate.
To do that, he has to regain his athleticism and continue putting on strength. That has all been hampered by the aforementioned ACL injury at this point. It is just too hard to predict what Noel will be like when he gets back onto the floor. It seemed at times Noel relied too much on his athleticism to overwhelm opponents and lacks some of the refinement necessary to succeed immediately at the NBA level.
The ACL injury just puts another road block in that development.
Draft Sites Say:
NBADraft.net: "One of the best pure shot blockers to come along in a number of years ... He's a more explosive leaper and has better on ball shot blocking ability than last year's UK freshman intimidator Anthony Davis. While Davis had a little better lateral speed and ability to get to shots as a weakside defender, Noel's ability to deny his man any daylight to the rim and be a rim protector makes him even more dominant, and a potential defensive enforcer for the NBA ... An elite level athlete with great quickness and explosive leaping ability.
"Offensively, Noel's game is rudimentary. He has shown some development but the general perception is that he will never be a strong offensive player, instead he impacts games with his defense, rebounding and athleticism ... Won't be able to "out-athleticize" opponents for baskets at the next level the way he has in college ... Scores mainly on put backs and dunks when he gets a clear path to the basket, or when teammates are able to create for him. That being said, his great foot speed allows him to get by inferior opponents off the dribble at times."
Final Word: If it were not for his ACL injury, Noel would clearly have the most "upside" in this draft and the most potential for growth. He would be a clear choice as the No. 1 overall pick and a guy teams could begin building their defense around. Orlando could certainly use him despite a glut at power forward as a rim-protector to fit next to Nikola Vucevic. However, his lagging offensive game and the questions about his recovery from knee surgery make him a much riskier pick now than he was in the middle of February. It is just too difficult now to project what kind of player he may become.