By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
Posted Dec 18, 2012 10:09 AM
The early race for the No. 1 pick in the draft is focused on three candidates and so wide open that it would not be a surprise if a fourth, a player to be named later, moves into contention. But at least the NCAA is definitely out of the running.
That portion of the intrigue faded last week, when the college governing body reinstated UCLA freshman swingman Shabazz Muhammad following an investigation into impermissible benefits on recruiting visits to other schools, saving NBA teams from having to consider using the first pick on a player who had just missed an entire season. (While the Jazz took Enes Kanter third in 2011 after the NCAA grounded him at Kentucky for overseas benefits, No. 1 is a unique spotlight.) As much as front offices would have discarded the reason Muhammad was sitting -- an issue over amateur status, not the sign of a troubled player -- someone could have been walking into unprecedented territory.
Still to be resolved: Everything else.
The consensus around the NBA is that there is no consensus. The closest to a definitive statement for now is that the leading candidate for the top pick in June is down to three possibilities as the process accelerates into important evaluation tournaments, to be sorted out later among Indiana's Cody Zeller, a sophomore center-power forward, and two freshmen, Muhammad and Kentucky power forward Nerlens Noel. Inexperience and size in a draft class that could have a lot of both.
Zeller is the safe choice -- solid with very good fundamentals, more NBA-ready than Noel and Muhammad, mobility, the No. 1 player on the current No. 1 team, and by most all NBA accounts heading toward a nice career. But that's part of the problem. The younger brother of Cavaliers rookie Tyler Zeller, the 17th selection in 2012, may never have the superstar return on the investment a lot of teams want from a first pick. The ceiling is the question. Cody also may not be a center in the pros, depending on the team that takes him.
Noel is limited with the ball, with the chance to become a scorer around the basket off offensive rebounds and bursts of athleticism that can create the separation for quick hooks or (very) short jumpers. Defensively, though, as a quick leaper at 6-11, with definite potential as a shot blocker and rebounder, NBA teams see the wow factor. If Noel develops at all on offense, the case for No. 1 moves forward.
Muhammad is a scorer. He just isn't much of a shooter, which is a problem for someone who, barring a growth spurt, will be a shooting guard in the NBA. The deficiency in that area packaged with aggressive play, court sense and indications of a great attitude has been compared to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Kentucky small forward who went No. 2 to the Bobcats in June. The NCAA discipline only cost Muhammad three games and is such a non-factor for the pros that he could have missed the entire season and still gone top three.
The fall-off starts there. But because the first few picks are fluid, the opportunity exists for a party crasher, from anywhere. One executive rated Rudy Gobert, a 7-1 Frenchmen, as a possibility. A scout put Alex Len in the mix for the top five after the Maryland center had 23 points, 12 points and four blocks against a Kentucky frontline with great preseason buildup, and top five in November is positioning to climb to the top as the season continues. North Carolina forward James McAdoo is in the same grouping after staying in school despite being a likely 2012 lottery pick.
This is the starting point, with Zeller, Muhammad and Noel in the lead pack and anything still possible. The intrigue that remains after the NCAA portion went away.
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