Draft Projection: No. 1: Cleveland Cavaliers
Similarities: Marcus Camby
Positives: Insider Only
Negatives: Insider Only
Summary: June 26 Update: Noel began the season No. 1 on our Big Board and ends it here as well. The questions -- a thin frame, a rehabbed ACL and raw offensive game-- are far outweighed by the strengths -- elite athletic ability and length, superb defensive skills and instincts, and a supercharged motor. Noel might not be the best player in the draft, but I think he's the best talent.
Quick fact: The Kentucky Wildcats allowed 18.2 fewer points per 100 possessions in the games in which Noel played (excluding the game against Florida when he was injured).
June 25 Update: Yes, for the sixth straight mock draft, I have Noel at No. 1 despite a consensus among NBA bloggers that Maryland's Alex Len is going to be the top pick. I wrote a long post on TrueHoop Monday night on why I think the Cavs are leaning toward Noel.
Here's the short version: While I think Len and Anthony Bennett also are in play for the top pick, Noel appears to be a better fit with the criteria the Cavs are using this year and have used in the past for the lottery. The team itself has remained tight-lipped -- in part because a number of different trade scenarios it is exploring could alter the composition of the Cavs -- but I think it's going to be Noel.
June 24 Update: With the exception of one 4 rating (does this guy have info we don't have?), Noel received an 8, 9 or 10 from every voter for our Secret NBA Draft Big Board. Clearly someone in the NBA thinks he'll be a bust, but the majority have him ranked as the top player in the draft. While Noel certainly has question marks thanks to ACL issues and a thin frame, most scouts and GMs still see him as an elite prospect. Right now we're projecting his draft range as 1 to 2.
June 18 Update: The Cavs have been talking to teams for weeks about a trade, but they are finding a limited market and at this point are likely to keep the pick.
Sources in Cleveland strongly suggest that the Cavs have yet to make their decision. Anthony Bennett, Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, Alex Len and Noel all have visits and/or workouts scheduled in Cleveland this week. Noel is scheduled to visit the team Thursday and has a chance to seal the deal as the No. 1 pick if he performs well.
Noel remains on top because he fits the profile of a player the Cavs prefer to draft -- the player with the most long-term upside. That's why they picked Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters at No. 4 the past couple of years and why Noel remains the favorite. Sources say Noel's strongest competition right now is Len, whom some in the organization favor because he, too, has size and defensive ability, but he's less raw and should be cleared to play much sooner than Noel.
June 10 Update: Noel's hold on the No. 1 spot in our mock draft never has been more tenuous. Yes, his doctor, James Andrews, is pleased with his rehab, but are teams willing to be patient with a player who might not be ready to play until early next year? Especially when he's one of the most developmentally raw players in the draft? After telling me all year the answer to those questions was "yes," it sounds like some of those teams at the top have changed their answer to "no." Even the Cavs' desire for Noel appears to be waning. The only thing saving Noel from dropping a few spots on our Board? Who is going to replace him?
June 7 Update: How worried should the Cleveland Cavaliers and other teams be about Nerlens Noel's knee? Noel's surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, is confident that Noel's rehab is going well.
"We're really happy with his progress," Andrews told ESPN in a phone interview. "He's several weeks ahead of schedule on his rehab. He's improving on a weekly basis. He has a completely stable knee. The bone plugs are completely healed into the bone. His muscle and weight is returning. He has had no setbacks at all."
Noel's trainer, Kevin Wilk, concurred. "He's well ahead of schedule," he said. "He's now out on the court for about an hour doing free shooting. He's running in the pool. I don't know too many guys who could do that at this stage."
Still, don't let the rosy rehab picture fool you. Noel still has a ways to go before he'll be ready to play at the NBA level.
"Whoever gets him has to go slowly with him," Andrews said. "It's going to take him a while to get back to the level he was before he was injured."
Noel will visit Cleveland on June 20 for his formal interview. Until we get different feedback from the Cavs -- that they have concerns about Noel, or there is a player in the draft they like more -- he remains the No. 1 prospect on our Big Board and the No. 1 pick in our mock draft.
May 28 Update: Noel didn't play or do anything in the way of testing at the combine, but his measurements posed a conundrum. Noel weighed in at just 206 pounds, historically light for a big man. He also went through medical testing to mixed results. Although some teams appeared completely unconcerned about the results, a small handful said that their doctors believe Noel might need to miss the entire season to fully recover from his torn ACL. We still have Noel slated to go No. 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Granted, he's not a lock to be the top pick, but from everything I can gather, he's the front-runner.
May 20 Update: Nerlens Noel probably is still the No. 1 pick, but it no longer seems as clear-cut as it did before the combine began.
Noel did not play in the event, but one particular measurement generated a lot of discussion from NBA teams. Noel weighed in at 206 pounds -- shockingly light for a player projected to be a center in the NBA.
I went back and combed through the measurements of draft prospects I've collected for the past decade. I couldn't find anyone listed as a center who was that light. The closest legit NBA player I could find? The Milwaukee Bucks' Larry Sanders, who weighed 222 when he was drafted in 2010, and the Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah, who weighed 223 in 2007.
Noel is more than 15 pounds lighter than either of those players. Noah isn't a great comp because he was much more skilled offensively. Sanders is a better comparison. They have similar bodies. But during Sanders' breakout year this season, he weighed 235 pounds. Noel is almost 30 pounds away.
Noel told me that he's lost weight since the surgery and was once as high as 220 during the season. Once he gets on an NBA weight program he should start packing on some pounds. But with dominant NBA centers currently averaging about 265 pounds (which is what Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez all weigh) Noel is going to have to put on a lot more weight.
"It's an issue," one GM said. "You look at the guys who really excel right now in the NBA at the center position and you wonder how in the world Noel can play with those guys right now. But you have to remember a couple of things. He can put on weight, and since he won't be back from injury until December or January at the earliest, it gives us a lot of time to start working on packing on the pounds. But more importantly to our staff -- and I asked everyone on our staff this question -- if he's not No. 1, then who is? I got a lot of blank stares when I asked that question. Someone has to go No. 1. If you have a better prospect, I'd like to know."
More important for Noel will be the results of the medical testing that was done on Saturday and Sunday. Once NBA teams get the full results, they will have a more complete picture of where Noel's rehab stands. We'd like to know, too.
May 8 Update: Noel will attend the draft combine, but obviously won't participate in the drills or athletic testing. However, a few important things can help his cause. He'll get his official measurements, he'll likely go through medical testing, which will give doctors their first good looks at his surgically repaired ACL, and he'll likely do interviews with the teams in best position to land the No. 1 pick.
May 8 Update (Projected No. 1, Magic): I'm not sure there will be a Disney World parade down the streets of Orlando if the Magic win the No. 1 pick. According to sources, Orlando had its heart set on Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart until he broke its heart when he decided to stay in college. While the Magic need just about everything, point guard might be their biggest area of need. So, does Orlando roll the dice on Trey Burke or do they go after Noel, who gives the Magic something else they desperately need (shot blocking)? The Magic were tied for 24th in the league in blocked shots and could use an athlete in the paint next to Nikola Vucevic. While there will be a solid argument for Burke here, high-ceiling players like Noel are hard to come by.
May 2 Update: Noel continues to look like the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick. Looking at our various Lottery Mock Draft scenarios, Noel now comes out as the No. 1 pick in 84.8 percent of the scenarios generated. We project Noel to go No. 1 to the Magic, Bobcats, Cavaliers, Suns, Kings, Wizards, Raptors, 76ers and Mavericks. Those are pretty great odds.
Apr 15 Update: Noel declared for the 2013 NBA Draft today. Noel's season ended on Feb. 12 when he tore his left ACL. However, the injury has done little to hurt his draft stock. Noel has been atop our Big Board all year with the exception of a brief slip to No. 2 after the injury. He has great size and athletic ability, and he proved to be one of the hardest-working players at Kentucky this season. Although his offensive game is a work in progress, he has as much upside as anyone in the draft. We currently project him as the No. 1 player on our board and he goes No. 1 in most mock draft scenarios.
Apr 2 Update: Michael Carter-Williams is getting all of the buzz, but Syracuse is getting great help from a number of players. However, Fair seems to be the player who draws the most attention from scouts. He's an elite athlete, and after being a tweener for his first two years at Syracuse, has settled into the role of small forward this year. He's dramatically improved his 3-point shooting and clearly has the ability to guard 3s. He's been consistently good in the NCAA tournament with one exception: He's just 2-for-6 from 3. Most scouts feel he needs another year to get firmly entrenched as a 3, but if he were to declare now, he's a likely second-round pick.
Mar 25 Update: Noel was atop our Top 100 rankings from our first one on June 29 until he went down with a torn ACL in February. Since that time we've been reluctant to keep him at No. 1 until NBA doctors have a chance to look at his MRIs. But the truth is that Noel might be the big draft winner of NCAA tournament so far. While most of the other top prospects have stumbled -- some mightily -- multiple NBA scouts and GMs remember Noel's increasing productivity at Kentucky and say, essentially, if every player in the draft this year is going to be a major risk, why not gamble with the ultra-athletic big man and hope his knee and his offensive game both get better?
While it's hard to describe Noel as a consensus No. 1, after a weekend of talking to NBA decision-makers, it sounds like most of them are now leaning that direction. Of course their doctors could talk them out of it, but assuming the surgery went well and the knee is rehabbing properly, Noel's chances of going No. 1 have gone up considerably the past few weeks.
Mar 13 Update: Noel underwent surgery on his torn ACL on Tuesday. Famed NBA surgeon James Andrews performed the surgery. Although Andrews' credentials speak for themselves, the choice of Andrews also signaled to NBA teams that Noel was picking a surgeon all 30 GMs in the league have on speed dial. Assuming the rehab goes well, Noel continues to be a likely top-three pick and still has a shot at going No. 1 overall.
Feb 27 Update:Noel is still experiencing swelling in his knees and doesn't yet have his ACL repair surgery scheduled. Once doctors go in and get a better picture of the injury and his recovery time, we'll have a better feel for Noel's draft stock. Every NBA scout and GM I've spoken with says that, assuming that there isn't anything unique about Noel's tear, they still have him as a top-five pick, and a number of GMs who said two weeks ago that they would be reluctant to take him No. 1 overall are softening their stance. He's the top talent on this Big Board and was No. 1 from July 1 all the way until the injury. I think there's a very good chance he ends the season No. 1 as well.
Feb 13 Update: The University of Kentucky announced Wednesday that star center Nerlens Noel is out for the season with a torn ACL.
The news isn't totally shocking after watching Noel go down in a horrific heap last night in the game against Florida. He was screaming and in excruciating pain.
At times like these, my first thoughts go out to him and his family. Noel was looking at being, potentially, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and this news not only ends his season but, at least in the short term, affects his NBA draft stock as well. He has put in so much work this year and by all accounts, is a great young man and I'm sure this news has been devastating to him personally.
I spoke with a number of NBA GMs and scouts last night and this morning about how an ACL tear would affect Noel's draft stock. The good news is that players can completely recover from ACL tears and the injury (assuming it's not more serious than an ACL tear) should not affect his long-term status. The bad news is that all of them expressed reservations about drafting Noel with the No. 1 pick given the injury.
In the wake of Greg Oden, NBA GMs are squeamish about making a mistake with the No. 1 pick -- especially with medical red flags.
I think I can say, with some certainty, that this ends his quest of being the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.
If Noel decides to enter the NBA draft this year, I think he still has a chance of going in the Top 5.
Kentucky is putting a six-to-eight month timetable on his return. That means, optimistically, Noel could be ready to play sometime between mid-August and mid-October. If he declared for the draft, he wouldn't be able to do draft workouts and would likely miss the summer league. However, if the timetable worked out, he would be ready to begin playing in the NBA preseason.
The top of this year's draft is extraordinarily weak and there are few impact big men at the top. While a team may be -- understandably -- uncomfortable taking him at No. 1, multiple GMs told me they would seriously consider Noel in the No. 2-5 range.
"Our scouting staff has seen enough of him to know what type of player he projects to be," one NBA GM said. "He's really raw, but he has so many athletic abilities and plays so hard. He was injured on an incredible hustle play. It's the thing I love about the kid the most. If he checks out with our doctors, I wouldn't hesitate to draft him high. He's going to heal. You're going to have to be patient with him anyway. He moves from being a risky No. 1 pick, to a potential value pick, like Andre Drummond, a little bit later in the lottery."
Of course, none of their opinions are set in stone. If his injury or rehab has complications, his stock could easily drop much further. But assuming a normal recovery, I still believe Noel could be a Top 5 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Based on the information I've gathered from NBA scouts and GMs, we have adjusted our Top 100 and have moved Noel from No. 1 to No. 3.
If he decides to return to Kentucky for another season and has a full recovery, there is nothing, according to both scouts and GMs, that would keep him from being the No. 1 pick in 2014 -- with the possible exception of current high school senior Andrew Wiggins, who is widely considered a better pro prospect than Noel. Assuming Wiggins is as good as we all think he is, it's unlikely that Noel would be the No. 1 pick in 2014 either.
However, again assuming he makes a full recovery, he would be in the Top 5 of my 2014 Big Board.
Jan 30 Update: Noel is still a placeholder here for the top pick. Noel isn't close to wrapping up the top spot and will probably land only here if a team with a need for shot-blocking in the middle, like the Cavaliers, for example, lands the No. 1 pick. Noel is still trying to shrug off the perception that his freshman season is a disappointment. I think he's been exactly who he was advertised to be -- a super-athletic defender with a very raw offensive game. He has played four times since the last Big Board update and totaled more blocks (32) and rebounds (37) than points (30). While his offense is still a work in progress, he continues to get better and better on the defensive end of the floor.
Jan 16 Update: Unlike the last few drafts, there is no consensus No. 1 pick in the draft. Very likely, the team with the top pick will make the selection based on need, which makes it very difficult for us to predict who will be No. 1 until the night of the lottery. But Noel has been atop our Top 100 since it debuted the day after the draft. I think he still deserves the spot. His numbers haven't blown you away, and the Wildcats are struggling, but Noel has proven to be an athletic rebounder and shot blocker, a better than advertised passer and an emerging offensive force on the block, and he has shown a very good motor. While Noel doesn't project to be a star, he could be an all-defensive player in the NBA someday.
Dec 17 Update: Jay and I both agree that Noel remains the default No. 1 pick. The biggest reason is upside; he's a super-athletic 18-year-old who already looks like he can be a defensive presence in the NBA. He needs to get stronger and improve his offensive game, but his development under Coach Cal has impressed scouts, as has his consistently high motor. He's far from a sure thing, but he may have the most star potential of any player in the draft.
Nov 26 Update: So whom would I take No. 1 if the draft was held today? Zeller's more polished right now and Muhammad has the potential to be a 20 ppg scorer at the next level, but I'd take Noel. I've had him atop my Big Board since July 1 and I've seen nothing to persuade me he isn't the best prospect in this draft. Of the three, Noel has the biggest upside and is the most likely to fit a need on the handful of teams we've already identified as potential NBA lottery teams.
And for the record, Noel hasn't been nearly as raw as we had anticipated. For the first five games at Kentucky, Noel has a college PER of 30.04 -- better than the PER scores of Zeller and Muhammad. He's averaging a respectable 12.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 3.6 bpg, 3.0 apg and 2.6 spg in a little more than 30 minutes a game. He's shooting better than 60 percent from the floor, and despite his aggressiveness on the defensive end, he's managed to stay out of foul trouble.
I think the comparisons to Anthony Davis are unfair. However, he's almost exactly on par with Davis' averages in his first five games and not that far off from where Davis ended the season: 14.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg. 4.6 bpg ,1.6 apg, 1.4 spg on 62 percent shooting.
For someone who was supposed to come in and struggle out of the gate, Noel has been more than solid and is getting better with each game. I still believe he has the inside track on the No. 1 pick, with so few legitimate centers in the league who can really control the paint.
Nov 12 Update: Noel was solid on Friday, but didn't exactly look like a No. 1 pick, either. Noel was a serious defensive presence in the paint -- he blocked three shots, altered many more and grabbed nine rebounds in 26 minutes. But great defense is expected from Noel. Offensively, he was, also as expected, pretty raw. He made just two baskets, was 0-for-3 from the free throw line and seemed uncomfortable with the ball in his hands.
Most scouts are willing to be patient. Noel is young, and everyone was expecting this to take time. But given how thoroughly he was outplayed by Maryland's Alex Len (more on him later), the big question is this: Is he still the No. 1 prospect in the country?
Oct 11 Update: The Wildcats have had the No. 1 pick in the draft two of the last three years. If Noel can get eligible to play (that's still a significant "if," at this point), he's got as good a chance as anyone to make it three out of the last four. While Noel isn't the same caliber of talent that Davis or Wall were, he's a dominant defensive big man who thrives as an athletic shot blocker. He's still very raw offensively, but John Calipari has shown a knack for developing young players at a quicker pace than scouts expect.
While other players like UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Indiana's Cody Zeller will give Noel a serious run for his money for the top spot, I still believe he's the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, given Noel's raw abilities and Calipari's track record.
If Noel can't get eligible, I still think he'll be a top-5 pick (a la Enes Kanter) based on pure upside and size.
June 27 Update: With Anthony Davis pretty much guaranteed to be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft and Noel potentially being one-and-done, it's not farfetched for Kentucky to have the top NBA pick in back-to-back years. Noel has mastered the art of blocking shots and will be the best shot-blocker in college basketball next year. His explosion, length, 7-foot-4 wingspan, excellent timing and basketball IQ allow him to block shots and impact every game he plays in. He makes his opponent think twice about putting up a shot in the lane. He can erase a teammate's defensive mistake and even start a fast break. Plus, Noel is still a factor defensively when he leaves the paint, because he will contest jumpers or hedge out on ball screens.
His offensive game needs work, but he has a solid jump hook and can drive from the high post and score with a left-handed finish. Noel can capitalize on drop-off passes and offensive putbacks, which he finishes at the rim with either hand. As he gains strength and girth and learns the nuances of how to gain leverage in the post and improves his feel for the game, he will even become even more of a force.
Mar 28 Update: Scouts are hoping that Noel is Anthony Davis 2.0. Both are super-long, explosive athletes who are absolute menaces in the paint. Some scouts feel that Noel may be an even better shot-blocker than Davis, but Noel is even rawer on the offensive end. Right now he is a potential No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. It looks like Noel has narrowed his schools down to Kentucky, Syracuse and Georgetown.