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Draft Watch: Noel's defensive prowess sought after

POSTED: Mar 15, 2013 7:58 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


The play was ordinary and unusual, a fitting start to the complex, contradictory debate unknowingly about to begin. Mike Rosario of Florida stole the ball, drove the right side and curled toward the rim to finish the breakaway layup, only to be denied by Kentucky's Nerlens Noel giving chase and blocking the sure basket from behind. It was impressive, yet it was also typical of the freshman season Noel was having on defense.

It's what happened next in Gainesville, Fla., on Feb. 12, as Noel landed at the base of the basket stanchion, that changed the basketball landscape. The momentum swayed his body to the right, the bottom of his left leg jutted left at the knee in gruesome fashion captured by the Lexington Herald-Leader, and he slumped to the court in agony.

Instantly, Kentucky had a massive hole in the middle as defending champions and NBA teams headed for the lottery had a soul-searching question that could change the direction of a franchise: Use one of the first picks June 27 on a player coming off knee surgery and facing an uncertain rookie calendar or pass on the risk and let arguably the top prospect in the draft slip to a competitor?

What has emerged so far, in the earliest stages of his recovery, is that Noel is expected to quickly come off the board that night in about three and 1/2 months, which says something about his potential as a difference maker on defense with added muscle that should come with age, and also about the confidence in modern medicine. More than anything, though, it says a lot about the projected draft class.

Noel is obviously a major prospect -- 6 feet 11 and 228 pounds at power forward, very limited on offense but an athletic shot blocker, a mega-recruit a season ago out of Massachusetts -- but the lack of talent in 2013 greatly helps his cause. As one front-office veteran put it: "He can be good defensively, but it's not like he's the next Bill Russell. There's another reason he's staying that high in the draft."

So it is that a thin 18 year old with 24 games of college experience, serious holes in his offense and concerns about one of his knees can be positioned as one of the top picks.

"I would say he's still in the top five and probably the top three," one executive said.

Maybe even top one.

"Maybe," he said. "Depends who it is and what their needs are. It also depends on specifically who is doing the picking. If it's a GM who just got the job and has four years of job security, that's different than a guy who feels like his job is on the line and needs to win now. That's a big factor."

Because any high pick can go bad for the usual reasons -- not good enough, bad fit with the team, not good enough, attitude issues, not good enough. But the personnel boss that takes Noel so soon after a torn anterior cruciate ligament, before being able to join an actual workout, is inviting a special level of abuse if Noel is a bust and the knee is even a fraction of the cause.

Noel had surgery March 12, to be followed, Kentucky announced, by six to eight months of rehabilitation before he is able to play. The draft is approximately in the middle of the timeline. Summer league is out. Training camp is some six and 1/2 months after the operation, performed by noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Gulf Breeze, Fla.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him and follow him on Twitter.

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