Noel's athleticism might make him the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA Draft. (Photo Credit)
What happens when the presumed No. 1 pick and best overall talent in the NBA Draft played only 24-college games…in his entire career? What happens when he shows up to the NBA Combine as a center…weighing only 206 pounds? What happens when teams realize this player may not even see the court at all next season because of an ACL injury?
They’ll probably still pick him first.
Nerlens Noel spent one season, which really amounts to just 24 games, at the University of Kentucky. He readily declared himself for the NBA Draft almost immediately after it ended, even though his college campaign hadn’t been as “Anthony Davis-like” as he or UK fans might have hoped for. Kentucky struggled all year, eventually earning the chance to prove that they were the 69th best team in the country in the NIT, a sad way to defend a National Championship.
Noel was, of course, the best player for the Wildcats all season. Yet his injury begs the question: how much do things like injuries and college performance really matter? Did Noel even improve his game in his short college tenure?
Nerlens Noel went to college because he had to. This is essentially fact. Whether he was injured or not, he was going to declare for the draft at the end of his freshman year. It’s not like anyone would actually want to play under John Calipari twice. Still, he is eons ahead of presumed No. 2 center Alex Len and every other big man in the draft statistically.
Noel shot 59% from the field and averaged 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game. His low point came at the charity stripe where he averaged 52.9%. Len, on the other hand, averaged 7.8 rebounds per game, 2.1 blocks, and a 55.3 field goal percentage during his 2012-13 campaign.
Though Len is 7’1” and weighs a bit more, their wingspans are equal. When you look at their stats though, Noel’s superior athleticism is evident. His ability to block the ball is clearly his greatest strength. For some context, Serge Ibaka led the NBA with 3.0 per game in 2013.
Centers are so difficult to handicap because of discrepancies like that. If Nerlens Noel were able to record 4 blocks a game in the NBA, it would be nothing short of incredible. But it just won’t happen. There are too many legit seven-footers in the NBA who actually know what they’re doing, and college lacks the sheer number of sizable players in the paint.
Noel is obviously going to be a top-5 pick, but is he worth spending the No. 1 pick on? Will he recover from an ACL injury—one of the toughest in sports?
Though all signs point to Noel rehabbing successfully, including his doctor’s constant insistence that he is on-schedule (which, to be fair, they said about Derrick Rose, too), any team interested in winning right away (including Cleveland sitting at No. 1) has to be wary of Noel’s health. That, coupled with the fact that he is a tiny 206 pounds, makes it completely fair to wonder if he’ll be able to match his college effectiveness in the pros.
Does some NBA franchise want to swallow the possibility that this whole thing goes Greg Oden on them? Especially a team as snake bitten as Cleveland? Forget about LeBron for a minute; Kyrie Irving has missed 38 games in his first two years. Do they really want to build around two injury risks?
We’ll take a look at that later, but first let’s take stock of a few other centers that could make it in the NBA
Alex Len, the second-best center in this draft, had the privilege of being compared to Noel. Beyond him, there are few other centers that could go in the top 15-20 of this year’s draft.
Duke’s Mason Plumlee leads the remaining centers in potential. Seven-footers who tip the scales at close to 240 pounds are rare. Those who come with the blessing of Coach K are even rarer. Plumlee is mature, and has improved steadily during his time in Durham. He lacks the wingspan and reach to block as many shots as Noel, but he is definitely athletic. Plumlee averaged 17 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game in 2012-13 with a field goal percentage of nearly 60%.
That’s an incredible stat. Need evidence that 60% means something? Only four NBA centers who played real minutes topped it last year. It’s probably going to fall a bit in the NBA, but Plumlee is going to score in the pros.
Gorgui Dieng, a member of Louisville’s National Championship team, is going to be picked among the top-20 spots. Dieng can rebound, block, and pass well, but he lacks the scoring punch of Plumlee or Noel. Dieng averaged 2.5 blocks per game, 2 assists, and 9.4 rebounds in 2012-13. Based on what we’ve seen, these are not eye-opening stats, but they’re still impressive. At 6’11” Dieng has an impressive reach and wingspan, as well.
But, who will need any of these player’s services? Let’s take a look.
With the No. 1 pick in the draft, and one of the best guards in the game in Kyrie Irving, the Cavs seem ready to take on the Nerlens Noel challenge with the No. 1 pick. They’ve heard good things about his rehab, but experts won’t know for sure until he interviews with them on June 20. As discussed above, I see tons of question marks here.
However, if any team were in a position to take this risk, it’d be the Cavs. Remember, they lucked into this pick. They already have their foundation in Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, so taking a risk won’t kill them. If Noel misses the year and the Cavs end up back in the lottery, it might hurt their chances at bringing back LeBron, but it would give them five high picks in a four-year span, an awesome treasure trove of young guys to build the team.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have a point guard they’re going to try to salvage in Austin Rivers, and Anthony Davis is obviously their centerpiece. Still, they could draft Alex Len simply because he may be the best available player at No. 6. He and Davis could be a lethal combination down low because of Len’s ability to do a bit of everything.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Seeing a team like OKC at the 12th pick is always interesting because they have plenty of talent already. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook at the point and Kevin Durant at forward, but what they are missing is a great center. Finding something there could make them dominant, especially as the Spurs’ age becomes insurmountable.
Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams may be the pick here. Adams is generally seen as the next best center after Len, but he needs to improve to maximize his great upside. Oklahoma City is the perfect place for a guy that needs some time. At No. 12, it’s tough to pull the trigger on Plumlee or Dieng, so the Thunder may take a bit of a risk on Adams.
To conclude, here my top-10 centers in this year's NBA Draft:
1. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
2. Alex Len, Maryland
3. Mason Plumlee, Duke
4. Steven Adams, Pittsburgh
5. Gorgui Dieng, Louisville
6. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga
7. Jeff Withey, Kansas
8. Lucas Nogueria, Brazil
9. Colton Iverson, Colorado State
10. Mike Muscala, Bucknell
By: Sam Barder