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It’s High Risk, High Reward for Nerlens Noel and the Cleveland Cavaliers

Yahoo Contributor Network
It’s High Risk, High Reward for Nerlens Noel and the Cleveland Cavaliers

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Nerlens Noel at the Spaulding Hoophall Classic.

COMMENTARY | The case for the Cleveland Cavaliers taking Nerlens Noel with the No. 1 pick is the same as it's been for every team that's been awarded the top selection in a draft featuring a legitimate big man.

The prospect of obtaining a reliable center who can impact the game on both ends is like catnip for NBA GMs. And the allure is obvious.

Quality centers are impervious to many of the variables that can derail a guard or a forward's impact in any given game. Because they make their living right by the basket, centers aren't as prone to poor shooting nights as smaller players. Likewise, defending and rebounding in the post are more about effort than skill. If you have a center not named Dwight Howard, this usually isn't a problem.

Nerlens Noel's stock is especially high. Unlike the 2007 draft when Portland GM Kevin Pritchard had to choose between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant--both of whom had phenomenal years in college--there is no guard or forward entering the draft that sets off the alarm for being a "can't miss" prospect.

Kansas guard Ben McLemore is the only other player in the draft besides Noel garnering even the slightest bit of attention as a legitimate option for the top pick. But in McLemore's one year with the Jayhawks, he simply wasn't consistently impactful enough to be considered a sure thing.

Which is not to say that Nerlens Noel is a lock for the Hall of Fame. After tearing his ACL halfway through the year in the same knee he previously injured as a sophomore in high school, Noel's durability is the biggest question that Cavaliers GM Chris Grant will have to assess before the June 27 draft.

Just the thought of Noel re-injuring himself as a pro no doubt has Chris Grant up at night with nightmares of other star-crossed big men taken at the top of the draft whose bodies betrayed their brittle frames.

The list is long of top-prospect centers who had their careers cut short by injuries. Players like Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Ralph Sampson, and Yao Ming could never regain their form after suffering various reoccurring lower-body injuries once they got to the league. Although he's trying for a comeback, Greg Oden looks like the NBA's latest inductee to that infamous club.

Besides his injury history, there are other questions about Noel. He weighed in at an anemic 206 pounds at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. On top of that, his offensive game is extremely raw.

Taking a 206-pound, offensively challenged center with a questionable injury history would seem to be a highly controversial move for the Cavaliers. The thing is, NBA GMs don't make the decision of whom they're going to draft just by reading a summary of a player's bio.

After averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.4 blocks in 32 minutes per game at Kentucky, Noel's numbers are modest but don't tell the whole story.

What makes Noel special is not necessarily quantifiable. His is the kind of athleticism that is instantly recognizable. Like watching Usain Bolt competing in a local high school track meet, it doesn't take long to recognize the outlier.

And with that athleticism, it's easy to see how he could be a significant force in the NBA. Especially since most of the current centers in the league are earning paychecks more for taking up space than for their skill level.

As soon as his knee allows him to step on the court, Noel will instantaneously be one of the best defensive players in the league. His instincts and leaping ability allow him to block anything that comes near him. Those same physical characteristics will allow Noel to clean up on the boards in the NBA--defense and rebounding are skills that always seem to translate from college to the pros.

And even though Noel clearly isn't Hakeem Olajuwon in the post, he did convert a solid 59 percent of his field goal attempts last year at Kentucky due to his hustle and athleticism that allowed him to score at the rim.

Noel will have the chance to refine his offensive game at the NBA level, and whatever team takes him will cross its fingers that he can do just that.

No matter how much he improves, though, there will be many more players drafted later this month that are more polished than Nerlens Noel. Even though it's a new draft class, it's a familiar enough story. Will the prospect of finding a force of nature in the draft convince Chris Grant to gamble like so many other NBA GMs have done before him? Will Grant be willing to risk his reputation and job security, not to mention the future of the franchise, on the damaged knees of a 19-year-old project?

For Chris Grant and the Cavaliers, the risk is supersized but so is the potential payoff.

Adam Redling is a freelance writer from Cleveland, OH. He covers the Cavaliers for the Yahoo! Contributor Network.
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