UK Men's Basketball

Commentary: Cautious Magic wouldn't rule out drafting Nerlens Noel if they have No. 1 overall pick

Kentucky's Nerlens Noel tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee when he landed awkwardly after a fast-break block of Florida's Mike Rosario Tuesday night.
Kentucky's Nerlens Noel tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee when he landed awkwardly after a fast-break block of Florida's Mike Rosario Tuesday night. McClatchy-Tribune

Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan has not taken a risk to acquire players with injury histories, such as Andrew Bynum and Jared Sullinger, but don't automatically cross off the name of Nerlens Noel.

Noel is recovering from surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee, but is still listed atop several mock drafts.

If the Magic are satisfied after exhaustive research, they wouldn't be afraid to take the former Kentucky star center with their lottery pick, according to a source with knowledge of the Magic's thinking.

Whether they feel Noel is as NBA-ready as, say, Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore, is another question.

When I watch the pre-injury Noel, I see a little of young Dwight Howard in his game.

He's a skinny 19-year-old who can dominate the game defensively, but he's a work in progress offensively.

That was the same scouting report we heard on Dwight when he was coming out of high school.

If it weren't for the knee, Noel would be the top pick, hands down. Any team would have his name already printed on a jersey if the ping-pong balls bounced their way.

Pairing Noel's defense and shot-blocking with Nik Vucevic's offense and rebounding is a tantalizing scenario for rebuilding Orlando.

Factor in another lottery pick in a potent 2014 class along with Noel, and the Magic might be back in the playoffs sooner than expected if they can land a star free agent or two.

But can the Magic afford to take Noel, gambling that he'll return to form?

Hennigan backed off Bynum in a possible Howard deal. He was proved correct as Bynum missed the entire season for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Hennigan had reservations about Sullinger in last season's draft, selecting Andrew Nicholson instead. Sullinger, taken by the Boston Celtics, had season-ending back surgery in February.

High-level athletes have recovered from ACL injuries to never miss a beat. And the 6-foot-11, 215-pound Noel would have all next season to rebuild his knee and gain weight.

Noel was injured Feb. 12 against Florida in Gainesville and had surgery exactly a month later. The operation was performed by James Andrews, the doctor to the stars.

By virtue of owning the NBA's worst record, the Magic can't fall farther than No. 4 in the draft. If Noel is there at No. 4, taking him would sound more plausible, given this ordinary draft class. But can they do it at No. 1?

By the June 27 draft, it will only have been 3½ months since Noel had surgery.

The Portland Trail Blazers picked injury plagued center Greg Oden over forward Kevin Durant in 2007. That decision set back the Blazers for years and accelerated the future for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who selected Durant at No. 2.

Too bad this wasn't the summer of 2014 for the Magic. Experts say this draft lacks a superstar, but next year's class offers Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

The "safer" picks for Orlando include McLemore, shooting guard Victor Oladipo (Indiana), center Cody Zeller and point guard Trey Burke (Michigan).

Hennigan would be taking his first significant gamble by picking Noel. You can bet on this: The Magic will know as much about Nerlens Noel's knee as his surgeon after doing their homework.