Nerlens Noel certainly impressed NBA scouts and executives with his size, skill and excellent defensive potential during his abbreviated freshman year with the Kentucky Wildcats. But when he suffered a torn ACL in February, people wondered whether Noel should declare for the 2013 NBA Draft or wait another year to get healthy. Scouts are still convinced that Noel's draft stock is sky high, and Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated asked around to discover that many GMs would still take the young big man No. 1 overall in the draft this year:
"There is so much information now about how people recover, it's easy to predict that he will be fine," a Western Conference GM said. "It's a common injury now. It won't make a difference to a team with a chance to draft him."
Added a Western Conference executive: "It's not an Amar'e [Stoudemire] injury. I'd still take him No. 1."
Noel is not a finished product and he may need time to grow in the NBA, but GMs love to take players with the highest ceiling and the greatest potential with the top overall pick. It's more about what the young big man can become than what he is right now:
"He has a skill set that you can't teach," a West executive said. "He runs the floor, blocks shots and has the heart and passion you don't see in a lot of bigs. He is only going to get better. You can't pass on a guy like that."
Added an East assistant GM: "I would be shocked if he wasn't drafted in the top four. He's not Anthony Davis. But look at Davis right now. As good as I think he is, he isn't close to a finished product. You are going to have to be patient with Noel. But with his tools, he can be a big-time player."
The 2013 draft class is considered weak at the top, and nobody has a higher ceiling than the 6'10 big man. Noel will turn 19 on April 10, and in his freshman season he averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.4 blocks over nearly 32 minutes per game as he helped Kentucky jump out to a 17-7 start to the season. He still occupies the top spot on the Draft Express top-100 prospect list, and Kansas guard Ben McLemore's so-so NCAA Tournament performance dropped him from the top spot in favor of Noel on Chad Ford's top-100 list at ESPN.
ACL injuries can be tricky, especially for big men, and Noel is far from a polished offensive player. SB Nation's Jonathan Tjarks made the case back in February for why the Kentucky big man should stick around in college for another season:
...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.
If Noel is still considered a No. 1 pick heading into the June draft, it would be hard to justify going back to Kentucky for another year. His draft stock literally can't go higher than No. 1 overall. However, if being the top pick means something special to him and there is any doubt that he would wind up in that slot, maybe John Calipari can convince his best player to join up with a fresh crop of recruits for a run at an NCAA Championship to solidify his draft stock at the summit of the draft board.