Noel's bright NBA future not expected to be derailed by injury

broberts@herald-leader.comFebruary 13, 2013 

The college basketball career of Nerlens Noel is almost certainly over, but his NBA prospects seem to be unchanged by Tuesday's season-ending knee injury.

The Kentucky freshman was already projected by many analysts as the most likely candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA Draft.

Wednesday's diagnosis of a torn ACL in Noel's left knee does nothing to change that, said DraftExpress.com analyst Jonathan Givony.

"If it's not him at No. 1, then it has to be someone else," Givony told the Herald-Leader. "And I don't see that someone else, right now, that I would want to pick at No. 1."

ESPN analyst Chad Ford also had Noel in the No. 1 spot on his draft board before Tuesday's injury. Noel is now No. 3 behind Kansas guard Ben McLemore and UNLV forward Anthony Bennett.

The prevailing wisdom — at least in the short term — is that Noel will be no worse than a top-five pick should he decide to go pro this year.

"I don't see any way he falls out of that range," Givony said.

Leo Papile — Noel's AAU coach for four summers in Boston — was watching on television Tuesday night when his former player crumpled to the court.

Papile was a member of the Boston Celtics' front-office staff for 16 years, serving as director of scouting for part of that time.

From a draft perspective, he said the injury wouldn't deter the majority of NBA general managers from taking Noel in the same position they would have otherwise.

Papile said the medical personnel for each team with a chance to draft Noel would go over his X-rays, MRIs and other test results "with a fine-tooth comb."

Papile offered the example of Kevin Garnett, who was traded from Minnesota to Boston in 2007 when Papile was the team's assistant executive director for basketball operations.

There were questions about the wear-and-tear put on Garnett's knees over the first 12 seasons of his career, and the Celtics turned to their medical staff before finishing the deal.

"That's what you hire those team doctors for," Papile said. "If my medical guy says, 'Go ahead. Take him.' You take him."

Papile noted that Noel has a young body — he's just 18 years old — that should react well to the rigors of rehabilitating from such an injury.

Noel is known for his tenacity on the court and his hard work in practice.

Papile said he must bring that same mentality to his rehab, which will be a much more laborious endeavor.

"Once the lights come on, he gives you all he's got," Papile said. "But the lights don't come on in rehab. It's 6 a.m. in the gym and it's just you and the trainer. It's drudgery. It's boring. It's repetitive. There's no immediate glory. You don't see the daily benefit like you do when you go out and get a good win or block a shot or make a winning play for your team.

"This stuff is marking days off a calendar. ... It takes a different focus."

If Noel puts in the effort that those around him are expecting, there's little reason to believe the injury will have an effect on his pro career.

ESPN's Kevin Pelton authored a study for Basketball Prospectus last year that charted the short-term effects of torn ACLs on NBA players dating to the 1999-2000 season.

Pelton found a minimal decline in production once the player returned to the court, and that decline was much less pronounced — or completely nonexistent — among younger players.

He also found an interesting trend that should comfort Noel.

"Most of the decline that people see is in terms of their scoring ability," Pelton told the Herald-Leader. "The actual athleticism-type stats — rebounding, blocks and steals — weren't affected as much as you'd think. Basically they're the same players, athletically, as they were before the injury."

Obviously, anyone drafting Noel with a high lottery pick this year would be doing so based on his defensive skills. As Pelton points out, those skills shouldn't deteriorate during the expected recovery time of six to eight months.

Pelton mentioned Washington Wizards center Nenê as an example of an NBA big man who tore his ACL and enjoyed his most successful seasons after the injury.

Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins are other recent examples of post players who have returned from torn ACLs with no ill effects.

Kenyon Martin didn't show up in Pelton's study, but his recovery from a similarly devastating injury could prove to be a best-case scenario for Noel.

Martin was the National Player of the Year at the University of Cincinnati in 2000, when he broke his leg in the conference tournament. The New Jersey Nets still selected him with the No. 1 pick in that year's NBA Draft, he returned in time for the first game of the season and he was eventually named a first-team All-Rookie.

It might take Noel more time to recover, but his perceived upside in what is widely considered to be a weak draft class means he won't slip far — if at all — in June.

"He's a 7-foot, freakishly athletic big man with an unbelievable motor," Givony said. "He's got phenomenal shot-blocking instincts, he's a very good rebounder and he's a very good finisher around the basket. All those things are pretty rare."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216.Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting/bloginky.com.

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