Anyone drafting Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel in June will be taking a significant risk.
Of course, is there anyone in the 2013 NBA draft to whom that doesn’t apply?
Noel said in a statement released by Kentucky Monday he’ll submit his name for the draft. His case is a little different, in that he suffered a ghastly knee injury in February. The joint turned nearly perpendicular to the side, tearing an anterior cruciate ligament.
That means it might take up to a year for him to be ready to play again, with no guarantee he’ll be the player who dominated college basketball early with his shot blocking. But that shot blocking might well make him a player worth the wait.
In 24 college games, Noel averaged 10.5 points, 9.46 rebounds and 4.5 blocks; not quite like Anthony Davis, the Kentucky big man drafted first in 2012, but a reasonable facsimile. Noel was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the all-SEC team.
In one particularly impressive game, he blocked 12 shots against Mississippi, playing the last 10 minutes of that game a foul away from disqualification. At 6-foot-10, 225 pounds, the guy is a force in the lane, and at-the-rim defense has seldom been a strength for the Charlotte Bobcats.
So even with shot blocker-rebounder Bismack Biyombo already in Charlotte, you must assume the Bobcats, jostling with the Orlando Magic for worst record in the NBA, will give Noel a long look in June.
Part of the issue is no one else has clearly separated himself from the field among 2013 draft prospects. Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore and Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart hover around the top of this draft, but neither played well enough in the NCAA tournament to cement his superiority.
Noel might be hurt, but the last impression he left scouts with was impressive. He was injured against Florida in a sequence in which a teammate committed a turnover. Noel turned back up court, caught up to the transition play, and blocked a shot before the awkward landing that cost him the ACL tear.
He’s a tough, competitive kid from a tough, competitive family. Two older brothers played major college football and they’ve told stories about pushing him around when they were young to teach him to stand up for himself.
Maybe the best measure of Noel’s value was how Kentucky fell apart in his absence. The reigning champions never qualified for the NCAA tournament field and suffered an embarrassing first-round loss to Robert Morris in the National Invitation Tournament.
What he had Kentucky needed and what he likely still has the NBA needs.