The worst fears of everyone in college basketball came true Wednesday morning when Kentucky announced that star freshman center Nerlens Noel tore his ACL in their loss to Florida on Tuesday. While the Wildcats have struggled to live up to lofty expectations, Noel had still done enough to make him a probable Top 5 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
In the aftermath of the injury, two immediate questions come to mind: how much his draft stock would be affected and whether he would still consider declaring for the draft.
The good news is that modern medicine has made it a lot easier to recover from an ACL injury. We all remember Adrian Peterson's miraculous recovery last season, while Iman Shumpert and Ricky Rubio have gotten back on the court within 9-12 months of a similar injury.
From that perspective, teams aren't likely to be too scared by Noel's injury. If doctors assure them that there will be no long-term damage, I have a hard time seeing Noel dropping out of the lottery. Once you get out of the first 7-8 picks, the ability to stash him as a long-term project would be too tempting to pass up.
However, even if he hadn't been injured, there would still have been questions about his potential as the draft got closer. At 6'10 230, he doesn't have great size for a center at the next level and his offensive game is still frighteningly raw. Even at 100 percent, he doesn't yet have the strength to establish deep post position in the NBA or the skill level to score too far away from the basket.
In that sense, the injury could end up being a positive for him. There are NBA centers who can succeed shooting 53 percent from the free-throw line, but they tend to be Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan's size, both of whom outweigh Nerlens by a solid 40 pounds. If Noel can come back as a player who relies less on raw athleticism to score, he'll have made himself a substantial amount of money over the course of his career.
Noel fits the profile of guys who benefit from staying in school: elite athletes who need to add more polish to their game. Michigan State's Branden Dawsen tore his ACL last March and was ready to play by the start of this season; if Noel's recovery followed a somewhat similar timetable, he'd put himself back in consideration to be a high pick in the 2014 Draft.
After what has happened, I certainly wouldn't blame him for wanting to bank as much money as soon as he possibly can. After all, if he came back and re-injured his knee, the money might not be waiting for him again. However, in the NBA, the real money comes on your second contract, not your rookie deal, which is capped as a part of the CBA.
Noel would have been a Top 5 pick this season based on his ability to step in and contribute right away as a shot-blocker, but if he wants to be an All-Star one day, he would have been better off staying in school regardless.