Cream of the Crop

Noel, McLemore out of reach unless Pistons draw top-3 lottery pick

Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel
Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel
Ronald Martinez/Andy Lyons (Getty Images Sport)
(Editor’s note: First in a recurring series leading to the June 27 NBA draft. Coming Wednesday: A look at Michigan point guard Trey Burke.)

In a draft pocked by uncertainty, this much the Pistons can take to the bank: The only two players they won’t have any shot to draft without moving into the top three when the NBA draft lottery is held Tuesday night are Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore.

It’s not a lock that those two players will go 1-2 or 2-1, necessarily, but no one believes they’ll last to No. 7 – the earliest the Pistons could pick unless they are one of the three teams that vaults to the top of the lottery when the results are made public before Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.

Most lottery teams, it’s widely believed, would take Noel with the No. 1 pick. But it speaks loudly to the lack of sure-fire impact talent that a player coming off a torn ACL, who won’t be available until late December at the earliest and who weighed a mere 206 pounds at last week’s NBA draft combine in Chicago, is not only a lottery lock but the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick.

Noel followed Anthony Davis, last year’s No. 1 pick, to Kentucky and filled his shoes as the starting center for the defending NCAA champions. Like Davis, Noel is a rangy shot-blocker with nimble feet and exceptional timing. But he comes to the NBA far less polished offensively, which is saying something. Davis, though he appears comfortable facing the basket and handles the ball well for a big man, is a long way from having plays run for him with New Orleans.

The one thing scouts love about Noel is his effort level. He brings the same infectious defensive and rebounding energy as Kenneth Faried, according to many. Some see him as evolving into a Tyson Chandler type, though Chandler is considerably bigger, while others say Noel evokes Joakim Noah. You get the idea: all big men known for things other than scoring.

Noel has moved to Birmingham, Ala., where he has been rehabilitating under Kevin Wilk, who works with renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews. Andrews performed Noel’s ACL surgery and told him, “it was a perfect surgery and it couldn’t have gone any better. That definitely gave me a peace of mind,” Noel said, “and it helps me to be in a state of mind to push myself and work hard through this rehabilitation.”

Noel called the injury a blessing in disguise, allowing him to build up his body and work on his shooting and ballhandling while awaiting clearance for full contact. As his 206-pound reading attests – to put that in perspective, Rodney Stuckey typically weighs in at 205 – he’ll need to spend every possible minute bulking up to bang with NBA big men who’ll outweigh him by 50 pounds or more. Andre Drummond, for one relevant example, weighs about 90 pounds more than Noel.

For all of that, Noel said he isn’t surprised he is considered no worse than the No. 2 pick.

“No, I’m not surprised,” he said. “I have a God-given talent. I’m going to use it in the best way I can. I think this injury will make me a better player. I see it as a silver lining to bring different parts of my game along, so I’m very thankful for that. A lot of skill work (and) I’m definitely getting stronger.”

Would the Pistons spend the No. 1 overall pick on Noel should they cash in on their 3.6 percent chance of winning the lottery?

Maybe. But with Drummond already in tow, Noel’s appeal to the Pistons doesn’t figure to be nearly as keen as it would be to others without a potential defensive impact player already on the roster. It would be challenging to play the two together, given their offensive limitations.

McLemore, on the other hand, offers a tantalizing combination of skills the Pistons logically might covet. He has superb athleticism – McLemore’s 42-inch vertical leap tied Indiana’s ultra-athletic Victor Oladipo for second of the 60 players at Chicago, behind only Miami point guard Shane Larkin – and a silky shooting stroke. The NBA player to whom McLemore is most commonly compared is future Hall of Famer Ray Allen. Others see Jason Richardson, perhaps the more logical expectation.

The comparison to Allen, though, is not one that McLemore, who rose above abject poverty while growing up in St. Louis, resists.

“That’s a great comparison,” he said in Chicago. “I feel like me and him definitely have that shooting ability. I don’t know about the athleticism, but definitely I’m athletic and with the athleticism and the shooting ability, I definitely feel I can impact in the NBA.”

If there was a knock on McLemore during his only season at Kansas – a 2012 recruit, McLemore sat out the 2012-13 season due to academic ineligibility – it was that he didn’t often seem like he knew he was the most talented scorer in the gym. In 12 Kansas games, McLemore took eight or fewer shots. In a closely contested NCAA tournament game with North Carolina, McLemore shot 0 of 9 and scored two points. Somewhat mitigating those concerns, scouts understand that Jayhawks coach Bill Self’s offense is built around the system, not the star.

The Pistons’ roster would argue for the selection of McLemore should they get the opportunity, though much will depend on moves subsequent to the draft made possible with the cache of cap space Joe Dumars will have at his disposal. Brandon Knight, undersized most nights at the position, ended the season as Detroit’s starter at shooting guard, while Stuckey – who has one year left on his contract before hitting free agency – and 2013 rookie Kim English are the other internal options.

The Pistons interviewed McLemore in Chicago. Whether they can get either Noel or McLemore to come to Auburn Hills for an individual workout – not relevant in the case of Noel, though the medical team might like a closer look at the status of his injured knee – and more thorough interview likely depends on Tuesday’s lottery results.

Those results don’t figure to be as exuberantly celebrated or deeply mourned as in a typical draft year. While Noel and McLemore are in a race to win the No. 1 spot, it’s not like 2007 when the choice was between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Some teams, in fact, might prefer not to move into the top three this year, where the salary guarantee is significantly higher than for picks later in the lottery.

But there’s a reason Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore are almost universally seen as the top two players in the draft. And if the Pistons land a top-two pick, one of them is likely to be lining up next to Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond. The odds they’ll be picking someone else, by the way: 92.24 percent.