A few months ago, there was little question that Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel would be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft. However, a gruesome knee injury suffered against Florida in February changed all of that. After chasing down Mike Rosario on a fast break layup and swatting his shot with authority, Noel slammed his left knee against the base of the hoop, resulting in a season-ending ACL tear.
The 18-year-old was close to a mortal lock to go first overall in the draft, but now no one is sure exactly where he'll go in the draft, or if he'll even enter. Kentucky's other standout freshmen, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Archie Goodwin, could all return to campus next season, despite being projected first round picks. Noel seems less likely to come back for his sophomore year on the surface, but he may be tempted to stay in school by the prospect of playing with the nation's most talented college team next season. Heck, if things really go John Calipari's way, next year's UK team could also feature top high schoolers Andrew Wiggins and Aaron Gordon.
Odds are, however, that Noel will play it safe and enter this year's draft. After all, it doesn't make a great deal of business sense for Noel to return to Lexington, risk aggravating his injury, and jump in with the hyper-talented 2014 group when he can instead go top five in a historically weak class on one leg. If Noel can show that his knee is back to 100%, he could easily reclaim his spot as the consensus No. 1 overall pick ahead of Kansas' Ben McLemore.
In the 24 games that he did play for the Wildcats, the 6'10" forward showed that he has very rare athleticism for a player of his size. With tremendous footspeed and a wingspan that is reportedly six inches larger than his height, he has a highlight reel that most NBA big man can't accumulate in an 82 game season. Defensively, he is a game changer with a mindset similar to that of a young Kenyon Martin. He won't just lock on to his assignment, he'll go wherever he is needed on the hardwood to pressure both big men and guards.
Offensively, well, it's a different story. His size should lend itself to a strong back-to-the-basket game that attracts multiple defenders, but he isn't much of a scorer. This year's Kentucky team was fairly thin on offense and they did not call on Noel for points on a regular basis. He doesn't have a mid-range game either, but he'll have to come up with something at the next level to be effective in a halfcourt set. Of course, at the age of 18, there's no reason to think that he can't develop his offensive tools over time. Noel probably doesn't have as high of a ceiling as Kentucky alum Anthony Davis, but he can eventually become an impact player in his own right.