Top NBA Draft prospect Nerlens Noel will miss the remainder of the year after tearing his ACL in Tuesday's game at Florida. The Kentucky center was one of the top-rated high school prospects and joined the freshman factory in Lexington to play for John Calipari.
It was figured that Noel would be the No. 1 pick before the season began and he was still expected to go in the top three before the injury despite a somewhat slow start to his season.
There was no doubting that Noel had the talent and athleticism to play at the NBA level. His potential alone would get him one of those coveted final spots. The question though was whether he had the refinement to his game to be a player that a franchise can truly build around. This year's class is largely regarded as a weak draft class, but that does not mean there could not be a few franchise-type players for the lottery teams to build around.
Noel's knee injury will only make the draft class that much more shallow.
For a player as raw as Noel, being forced to stay in school and rehab to develop more of his technical skills could be a very good thing. That is, if he keeps the athleticism that made him such a dominating defensive player through 24 games.
Noel's numbers do not display his dominance, because so much of it came on the defensive end and so little of it came on offense. Noel averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game.
Even a seasoned team like Florida with some talented guards and one of the top centers in the nation in Patric Young constantly sought out Noel or looked for him before going to the rim. His impact on defense is that noticeable. It was almost like watching Dwight Howard at his peak in Orlando the way he caught everyone's attention in the paint this game.
Tuesday before the injury was not a good game for Noel, and it exposed many of the weaknesses in his game right now.
Noel played only 23 minutes, but scored eight points, grabbed six rebounds and had three blocks, changing countless others. It did not seem he played that well on offense. His lone highlight play, and seemingly the only score he had, was a high-flying put-back dunk that displayed all the athleticism Noel has.
Again, his stats rarely tell the story. But if he wants to be a franchise player at the next level, they need to.
Noel's offensive game is extremely rudimentary. He was constantly outpositioned and outfought in the post by the smaller but stronger Young. And Noel's jumper is not good enough to make him much of an offensive threat. Instead of being a Kevin Garnett — seriously look at Garnett as a rookie and tell me he and Noel do not have similar builds — he is a Ben Wallace.
The thing is, you see the talent in him to be a Kevin Garnett-type player. But to do that and fulfill that potential, he has to get more comfortable with the ball in his hands.
Against the stronger Young, one of the best post defenders in the SEC, Noel was determined to try and back him down only to be met with the resistance Young could offer. Young is projected as an early second-round pick by NBADraft.net (although, my personal opinion is that he could be a very solid contributor off the bench for a Playoff-caliber team). Noel did not have the sense to recognize this mismatch and try to face up and try to use his speed to attack Young.
Perhaps this is something he learns in the NBA where unlimited coaching and the elimination of the school "distraction" (we can get into the silliness of the NBA and NCAA's rules regarding the one-and-done player on another day). And certainly an NBA weight training program would help him add some muscle to his wiry 6-foot-10, 228-pound frame.
While the injury certainly eliminates Noel's bid to be the No. 1 overall pick, many still expect him to be a top-5 pick and there appears to be no indication that he will stay in college.
However, you have to wonder how much Noel is going to develop going up against the "men" of the NBA. Look at Dwight Howard. He had a much wider frame and better offensive skills and many still suggest he needs a more refined post game. It makes you wonder how going up against less-skilled, college big men would have helped boost his confidence and allow him to experiment and grow with his offensive game.
Maybe this argument is a fallacy. Maybe Noel is truly as good as he is going to be and is ready to take his game to the next level. Defensively, there does not appear to be doubt about that.
The injury though could help him really focus on his technique and his offensive skills. And would that be done better in the NBA or at the college level?
We will find out in June just how much he and the NBA believes he can recover from this injury.