CHICAGO — Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel hopes everyone gets this: He’s injured, not broken.
Our last memory of Noel was him hitting the floor against Florida. He had just blocked a shot from behind – one of many spectacular plays in the 2 1/2 months he suited up for the Wildcats – but his left knee bent in a gruesome way no knee was intended to bend.
This resulted in a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament. The end of his freshman season became the end of his college career: Why continue to test fate without turning pro? And now – partially because of what he showed and partially because the 2013 draft is pretty weak – Noel might still be the first player chosen next month.
He’s a quiet, respectful kid in interviews. But if you expect some faux surprise that he’s still a top pick, you’d have been disappointed Thursday at the Draft Combine.
“I’m not surprised. I’ve got the talent and I’m going to do things the best way I can,” Noel said to a three-deep crowd of reporters. “I definitely think this (injury) will make me a better player, having gone through this. I’m working on my jumper and putting on good weight.”
That expression – “good weight” – means Noel was well prepared for the inquiries he’d face from NBA media. Even before the injury, there were questions about Noel, specifically his offensive limitations and his lower-body strength.
Scouts have an expression, “knocked off his pins,” for a big man who lacks the strength to hold his ground under the basket. At 6-11 and 225 pounds, Noel was hardly a bruiser. Also his shooting range was quite limited.
But those 4.4 shots he blocked on average before being injured meant he had one skill as NBA-ready as any prospect in this draft. So it would be no shocker if the Charlotte Bobcats or any other team that ends up with the No. 1 pick in Tuesday night’s draft lottery, selects him.
Noel gets that he’ll likely go first or second (Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore being the other viable candidate). So he’s patiently concerned with returning to full health. No shortcuts in this process.
Renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews reconstructed his knee and Andrews’ Birmingham, Ala.-based facility now houses his rehabilitation. What Andrews says, Noel does roughly six hours a day.
“The day I heard what the injury was – an ACL – was the only day I felt sorry for myself. Every day since then I’ve devoted to my rehab,” Noel said. “I’m 100 percent confident of, not just getting back to what I was, but stronger.”
The team that drafts him must share his patience. Andrews projected a minimal seven-month recovery period, which means Noel would be available to play in January at the earliest.
That means he misses summer league, training camp and the first two months of his rookie season. But the team drafting him shouldn’t be so concerned with the short run that such schedules deter.
Noel can’t yet run, but that doesn’t mean he’s not trying to improve his basketball. The break from lower-body activity has him focused on his shooting range, clearly a deficiency.
He expects to surprise those who scouted him at Kentucky.
“As time goes on I’ll do more low-block work. Right now it’s more form shooting,” Noel described. “When I come back I’ll be able to knock down that 15-footer and take my game to another level.”