October 24, 2014

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Cavs: Scouts’ opinions vary on Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel

Editor’s note: The following is the first of four stories examining players the Cavaliers might select with the first pick in the NBA Draft.

There isn’t a lot of middle ground with Nerlens Noel.

There are things to love about the 6-foot-11¾ big man, who could go to the Cavaliers with the No. 1 pick in the June 27 NBA Draft, but there are also things to be extremely concerned about.

Nerlens Noel comes with plenty of baggage, but still could go No. 1 overall to the Cavaliers. (AP PHOTO)

Topping the list of negatives is the fact Noel underwent surgery on his left knee in mid-March and is not expected to play until around Christmas, at the earliest.

“The key is he hurt the same knee in high school,” said Ryan Blake, the NBA’s senior director of scouting. “You don’t know what’s going to happen with him. He’s not going to be in the summer league, he’s not going to be in the preseason and he may not be there in the season.”

Noel, who turned 19 on April 10, was extremely confident he would make a full recovery and come back better than ever when interviewed at the NBA Draft Combine in mid-May.

Exactly when he will come back, however, is uncertain. Noel will reportedly be in town to meet with the Cavs on Thursday, at which time the team’s medical staff will likely attempt to learn as much as possible about his knee.

“I’m 100 percent confident in not just gaining what I had, but being stronger and coming back better,” Noel said at the combine. “I’ll be working on a lot of things I needed to polish. I think it’s going to help me in the long run.

“With modern medicine, I’ll definitely come back stronger. Just being who I am and working as hard as I do, I definitely feel I’ll be the player I’m expected to be, if not better.”

The next-best power forward in the draft, 6-7, 240-pound UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett, also has some injury concerns, as surgery on his left shoulder could sideline him through August.

Bennett, who averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting .381 on 3-pointers in his one college season, is considered a bit of a tweener by NBA standards, but is expected to have a long, productive career.

“I think he’s a helluva player,” said Joe Kotoch, a draft expert for Sheridan Hoops. “If he was 6-10, he would be the clear-cut No. 1 pick in this draft.

“He’s kind of a player without a position, but when you project him as he fills out, he’s going to play power forward. But his game gives him so many advantages outside.”

After Noel, who played center at Kentucky and could very well play that position in the NBA as well, and Bennett, the power forward spot gets very weak, very fast.

There’s a chance no other players at that position could go in the top 20 picks, but there’s more than enough intrigue surrounding Noel, who averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks as a Kentucky freshman, yet weighed in at just 206 pounds at the combine.

“At the end of the day, some guys’ bodies just aren’t meant to take the pounding these guys take,” Kotoch said. “You have to be careful with him.”

While Noel’s thinness is a concern, his length — his wingspan is 7 feet, 4 inches — and leaping ability have many projecting him as an NBA center, particularly in an era when there are very few talented, back-to-the-basket players in the league.

“The Cavs are in need of length,” Kotoch said. “They need a center. Noel is long enough, but will he get big enough?

“There’s no reason he can’t be the Cavs’ center of the future with the way centers are in the game today. You’re not asking these guys to be 20-point scorers. You’re asking them to block shots, defend and rebound.”

Noel can do the latter three — shot-blocking is considered his greatest strength at present — but his offensive game pretty much centers around dunking the ball at the moment. He shot .590 from the field at Kentucky, but displayed almost no post moves and hit just .524 at the line.

Still, much like improving Cavs power forward Tristan Thompson, Noel is billed as a guy who is willing to put in the time needed to get better, and members of the Cleveland organization spent a lot of time watching him at Kentucky.

“He’s a hard worker,” Kotoch said. “He probably never scores 20 points a night, but if he works hard and gets one or two moves, he could be a 12- to 14-point scorer.”

That kind of envisioned production and a clean bill of health regarding his knee could well be enough to convince the Cavs — and many other teams — to take Noel with the No. 1 pick, because his athleticism and length are impossible to miss.

“Obviously, he’s on top of the (draft) board right now,” Kotoch said. “If he had been healthy, he would have played himself into the first pick. Seven-foot guys that can defend and block shots don’t grow on trees.

“Basically, if you take Nerlens Noel and he doesn’t play until January or February, so what?”

Next: Maryland center Alex Len.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.