Nerlens Noel (Stephen Lovekin/ Getty)
There's perhaps no one more intriguing than Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel, once considered the player most likely to become the top pick in the draft. That changed after Noel tore his ACL in mid-February. Yet, with only Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore making a reasonable case for himself in the interim, Noel is still among the contenders for the top pick. The question is when he'll be ready and what his team can expect from him once he returns.
There is good news on the former issue. From the Associated Press:
Noel said he is ''ahead of schedule,'' but being ready for a season opener is overly optimistic and Christmas is more of a target date.
''I've started to shoot some free throws the last week with a different type of brace on,'' said Noel, who has yet to start running again in his rehab. ''I'm 100 percent confident of not just gaining what I had but definitely being stronger, coming back better. During this time that I won't be playing basketball I'll just be working on a lot of things that I needed to polish when I was playing.'' [...]
''It's an injury you've got to be mindful of,'' he said. ''You can't try to rush back from it. You want to have longevity in your career, just be careful with it.''
Noel said he'll be particularly careful about the mental aspect of being comfortable with his return.
''As much as you want to be back, you want to be playing as long as you can in the NBA and not have to reinjure yourself and go through all this again,'' he said.
A Christmas return would mean Noel — who presumably didn't pick that date because his surname is another name for the holiday — would miss all of training camp and two months of the regular season, which is obviously not an ideal situation for a rookie who played only 24 games in his lone season in Lexington. On the other hand, it goes without saying that whichever team drafts Noel will see him as a long-term investment, not someone who must be able to participate in the season opener no matter what. There's inherent risk in taking an injured player, but it's a gamble worth taking for a team that believes he's the best available choice.
That sense of the future could also make Noel's delayed return a benefit. While it's generally not considered polite to support tanking, the race for the league's bottom in the 2013-14 season could bring a major reward: Canadian forward and recent Kansas commit Andrew Wiggins, arguably the best prep prospect since LeBron James (or at least Greg Oden). The team that takes Noel will take him on his own merits, but it's hard to escape the idea that picking a promising player who also happens to be out for two months could give that franchise a leg up on next June's Wiggins lottery.
Tanking is a bad word, and no team will promote the upcoming season as an extended wait for a player whose first NBA destination will ultimately be determined by ping pong balls. But Wiggins is exciting enough that teams are bound to consider strategic losing as a strategy, or at least entertain the idea that pursuing the 11th best record in a conference isn't worth giving up a chance at Wiggins.
Again, this is not a slight on Noel, a shot-blocking force with the opportunity to develop a very good offensive game. It's just that delaying the gratification of seeing him in an NBA uniform isn't only good for the health of his career — it could help his team put together a championship-level core.
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