UK Men's Basketball

ESPN analyst: Noel is the only Cat who should enter draft

University of Kentucky players Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel on Monday September 17, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
University of Kentucky players Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel on Monday September 17, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

John Calipari has been a familiar face on NBA Draft night in recent years.

Lots of picks — 15 in the last three drafts — have meant lots of smiles from the Kentucky coach.

This time around, UK's draft night could be another one-and-done story: One pick, and that's it.

ESPN analyst Chad Ford shared his thoughts about Kentucky's NBA Draft prospects with the Herald-Leader on Wednesday, and the outlook for this group of freshmen is not nearly as bright as it was for the previous three classes.

The good news for Calipari is that he could well have the No. 1 overall draft pick for the second straight year.

Ford had Nerlens Noel at No. 1 on his "big board" before the UK big man went down with a season-ending knee injury last month.

Noel dropped to No. 3 after the injury, but Ford moved him back up to the top spot Tuesday based on recent discussions with NBA front office personnel.

"He has always been, in the eyes of most scouts, the player in this draft with the most upside," Ford said. "Obviously, the ACL injury gave everyone pause. But as they've spent the last month or so evaluating other potential players like Ben McLemore and Marcus Smart for the No. 1 pick, a majority of them have come back and said that, barring some sort of problems with Noel's rehab, they still believe he's the No. 1 pick."

Ford added that, had Noel stayed healthy and developed at the same rate as he was before the injury, he'd be the clear-cut choice to go No. 1 on June 27.

The NBA analyst said the most common comparison he hears from scouts is to Marcus Camby, who played for Calipari at UMass and is in his 17th NBA season. "It's not perfect, but I think it's a good one."

None of UK's players have announced their intentions for next season, but Noel is the one Wildcat widely expected to enter the draft.

Whoever ends up taking Noel will do so with tempered expectations, at least in the short term.

"He's a project, and anyone drafting him No. 1 understands that," Ford said. "But what they love is his athletic ability, his defense, his motor. He was injured chasing a player down on a fast break. Few big men in the NCAA could've or would've made that play."

Noel could open and close draft night from a UK perspective.

The status is cloudy for the school's other three highly touted freshmen: Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Of that trio, Cauley-Stein is the only player Ford considers a "lock" to be chosen with a first-round pick, and he doesn't think any of them would go in the lottery, which consists of the first 14 selections.

Ford considers Poythress and Goodwin "likely" first-rounders, but his advice to all three would be to stay at Kentucky for at least one more season.

That said, players are drafted on upside, not college results.

"They all have potential," Ford said. "This is a weak draft. Some team will gamble that in a couple of years they'll improve their games, overcome their weaknesses and be worth this pick. Are they ready now? Absolutely not."

Cauley-Stein is the player that Ford says has the most to gain by a sophomore season in Lexington. Calipari has a No. 1-ranked recruiting class stacked at every position coming in, but Cauley-Stein would be the likely starter at center.

The 7-footer would also have more talent around him in 2013-14, and that would only help his development.

"His game has grown by leaps and bounds since he started his senior year of high school," Ford said. "I think he could easily be a lottery pick if he stayed another year.

"The biggest thing will be having a true point guard. Andrew Harrison is about five times better than Ryan Harrow. Big men need someone to give them the ball in the right position."

Poythress and Goodwin would have to compete for minutes should they decide to return.

Goodwin would face competition from top recruits Aaron Harrison, James Young and possibly Andrew Wiggins.

Likewise, Poythress would confront the challenge of new UK commitment Julius Randle.

Ultimately, Ford said, the incoming class will probably be a consideration as Goodwin and Poythress decide whether to stay or go.

"It will because there's a very good chance that Goodwin and Poythress don't start," he said. "If they do, it's because they've improved their games and are outplaying the incoming guys in practice. They won't be given anything.

"Are they willing to work on their games and take that risk? If they are, they should come back. If they aren't, they're going to fail anyway."

If they leave now, Ford said, Goodwin and Poythress will spend their rookie seasons in the NBA Development League "for sure." He said it was possible they could spend the entire 2014-15 season there, too.

Calipari's routine is to meet with underclassmen after each season to discuss their NBA prospects and give advice on what he thinks they should do. As of Wednesday afternoon, those meetings had not taken place.

The NBA's early entry deadline is April 28, but the future plans of UK's freshmen should be known well before that date.

Ford predicted that Noel will go pro and Cauley-Stein will return to UK. He was unsure about Poythress and Goodwin, but "I think both players know they aren't ready for the NBA."

Of Calipari's 15 draft picks in three years at Kentucky, nine have been freshmen, and all nine of those have been selected in the first round.

He hasn't had fewer than four selections in any of the past three drafts.

So will a Noel-only night put a dent in Cal's reputation as the best college coach at quickly developing NBA talent?

"No," Ford said. "He's still the premier guy."

Instead, Ford blamed a weak national recruiting class and expectations that were much too high.

Anyone who expected this group of UK freshmen to match the past three classes was set up to be wrong.

"Sure it's unrealistic and it's partly our fault," Ford said. "Dave Telep, (ESPN's) recruiting guru, told me and everyone that would listen that Poythress, Goodwin and Cauley-Stein weren't the same caliber player as last year's freshmen and that they would struggle.

"But given Cal's track record of improving young players and the weaknesses of the draft, we didn't listen. It was a mistake."