Is Nerlens Noel Cleveland’s Muscle Or A UK Hustle?

If this was the ’96 NBA Draft, there would be no way that Kentucky Wildcats center Nerlens Noel would be getting ready to gingerly limp to the podium as the No. 1 draft pick, coming off season-ending ACL surgery.

It’s safe to say, that even at 100 percent, if the ’13 draft were stacked, Noel wouldn’t be the projected top dog.

The experts say there’s no ’Melo, Kevin Durant or CP3 in the mix, just this one kid with a twice-wounded left knee and a world of potential.

Despite the torn ACL suffered before the NCAA Tournament of his freshman year at Kentucky, Noel is still looking like the draft’s platinum-pick, and it’s been reported that he’s getting his Adrian Peterson on with his recovery process.  

Still, many questions remain about a guy whose entire game is based on his freakish mobility.

The uncertainty has got to be wrecking the brain of Cavs GM Chris Grant and ticking owner Dan Gilbert off, since unavoidably, the topic surrounding the Cavs always boomerangs to LBJ.

If there truly is a possibility that the prodigal son will return home in ’14, then laying a legit championship foundation is essential. Kyrie Irving is Grade A official. He’s a perfect superstar complement to LBJ, but the Cavs desperately need a ready-to-ball third-wheel with whomever they draft No. 1 this season. 

Word is, 7´1 Maryland center Alex Len is on the come-up. Len’s considered more of a traditional post player with doper offensive skills, but he’s recovering from ankle surgery and has been unable to work out for teams.

Both picks are risky because Cleveland needs a sure thing.

Len’s shoddy ankle is a major red light. Several other seven-footers had their careers cut short by stress fractures, including Yao Ming, Bill Walton, and Sam Bowie.

And despite his hype and social media celebrity, no one is describing Noel’s NBA superstar status as “guaranteed money.”

Noel is a light, 6´10, 215-pounder, relying on ridiculous shot-blocking, above-average rebounding skills and Rikers Island-style defense generated from his supreme athleticism.

Noel’s not a polished shooter or paint-pounder. The best thing you can say about his shaky O is that it’s raw like Blake Griffin when he first entered the league. That includes brick-laying on the charity stripe, too.

The fact that Noel hasn’t been able to flex any improvement in his basketball skills is another point of concern for Cleveland, with its slim-to-none margin of error and ’14 playoff optimism.    

So what’s Noel’s ceiling?  

If you’re comparing him to last year’s No. 1 pick Anthony Davis, Kentucky coach John Calipari’s been saying kill that noise before Noel ever suited up in blue and white.

“He shouldn’t be compared,” Calipari told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “They’re totally different… Anthony understood how to compete on possessions. Nerlens is still learning. Like, he’ll take possessions off. Well, you can’t do that. What he is, is a normal freshman.”

If you’re Cleveland, that’s a damning statement. Back in October, Davis told Calipari that the times he went against Noel in the past, the Wildcat frosh was easy to move off the block and bully around on offense.

Not sure how much Noel progressed in 24 college games, but if Davis’ talk is true, the high top, high-riser will have a rough go of it in the “Beastern Conference,” mixing it up with the likes of Roy Hibbert or Joakim Noah. 

It wasn’t like Kentucky was dominating with Noel. They were on the NCAA bubble. He showed flashes, but he didn’t have the consistency or leadership abilities Davis had as a freshman. Noel’s rep as a ball-swatter, however, didn’t suffer a bit. He got Bill Russell stupid, setting a UK single-game record with 12 blocks against Ole Miss. You know, the type of stuff that makes scouts salivate. 

Whether Noel ends up the first pick or not, the fact that he’s even in this position is a victory for a kid whose parents immigrated to Everett, Mass. from Haiti in the ’90s and worked as cleaners at a local hospital, making a life for their children. Noel found hoops and became the most sweated Boston recruit since Patrick Ewing. After a nasty recruiting war, he chose UK over schools such as Syracuse and Georgetown. His name’s been ringing bells ever since.

So not only does Noel have the Cavs future riding on his $20 million knees, but he has the hopes and dreams of the destitute island of Haiti on his shoulders.

We know drafting is an imperfect science. There’s always the possibility of sleepers like a Maurice Cheeks (2nd round, 36th pick, 1978) or Alex English (2nd round, 23rd pick, 1976), but that’s a stretch this year.  

One thing’s for certain: There are too many ifs and not enough gifts. Noel, who is expected to hit an NBA court by Christmas, could be the closest thing. If the Cavs nab him and he can develop now rather than later (or not at all), this could be Cleveland’s last lottery house party for a while.  

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.