CHICAGO – Potential No. 1 pick Nerlens Noel said his recovery from a torn knee ligament is going better than anticipated but that he expects to make his NBA debut sometime around Christmas, an assessment that should end speculation about whether he could be ready for the start of the season.
The Kentucky power forward/center is rivaled by only Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore as the clear favorites to be chosen first overall in the June 27 NBA Draft. Noel has an edge in their head-to-head matchup but McLemore is a realistic option based on team need once the lottery order is set Tuesday. But Noel has the unique risk for a possible No. 1 of coming off knee surgery in March, late enough that he not only is unable to work out for clubs but also will force him to miss summer league and training camp.
His report on the current rehabilitation in Birmingham, Ala., offers the prognosis of a successful recovery yet also the reality he will probably miss at least the first two months of his rookie season. Noel said the timetable is based on what he calls ‘very encouraging’ feedback on the recovery efforts along with the initial estimate of needing six to eight months to get back on the court.
“I have no doubt that I will be 100 percent, [and] even better than before, especially with everything I’m doing now,” he said. “I’m strengthening everything – upper body, lower body. I’m sure I’ll be better than 100 percent when I get back.
“It’s [going] better than I expected. I expected to be moving at a fast rate, and I definitely am. I’ll be looking to make a comeback as soon as possible. I just want to make sure my knee is in a good state.”
While it is impossible to get a definitive read on the knee, there is the other update on his conditioning and prep work for the draft: Noel measured at 4.2 percent body fat earlier this week as part of all prospects from U.S. colleges going through physicals, a very good outcome for anyone but particularly a player who isn’t able to go through the same training regimen. He measured 6-foot-10 without shoes and 6-11 ¾ with shoes, and 206 pounds.
“There’s no risk at all,” Noel said of a being chosen first with the uncertainty of a knee injury. “I definitely have the mindset that I’m going to come back from this…. When I get back, I’m going to be the hardest worker I can be and do what I have to do to be the player I want to be and do good things for the team I get drafted by.”
Other news, notes and observations as the second and final day in the gym at the pre-draft combine concluded Friday afternoon:
- Rudy Gobert, on the bubble for the lottery, scored points with teams by participating in drills when it has become common for most prospects with a good shot for the middle of the first round to skip the basketball portion of the event to protect draft stock. Front offices are annually frustrated by players ducking the competition. Gobert, a center from France, did not duck. “It shows that somebody’s aware,” one executive said. “The knock on him is that he doesn’t want to compete. Whether he listened to an agent or a coach or decided on his own, it’s a good sign that he’s here.”
- Gobert looked stunned to learn there were doubts about his drive. But he did say he liked the idea of sending the message that he wants to face the top competition to get better after so far spending his entire career in Europe. Gobert also has the “Wow” factor with a wing span of 7-8 ½ and a standing reach of 9-7 in addition to standing 7-2 in shoes, meaning he can at least come close to touching the rim without jumping. His wingspan has been an obvious attribute for a long time, with people often asking him to stand and stretch his arms, just to get a look. One executive, seeing Gobert in person for the first time, said it’s a sight just to watch Gobert’s reach while standing next to another player. Teams want to fall in love with this guy. He had a disappointing 2012-13 in Europe, but with his potential plus the physical, Gobert easily moves into the lottery if he does anything in the individual workouts. He was No. 16 in the last NBA.com ranking.
- Jeff Withey, center from Kansas, is aware teams like him around the middle of the first round for defense and rebounding, and has been working to improve his mid-range and post game since the end of the season. The result was some positive feedback off drills in the gym.
- Steven Adams, was the big man who impressed the most in that area, showing a mid-range game that didn’t get noticed in one season at Pittsburgh. That Adams is expanding his game is especially noteworthy as a relatively inexperienced player, and very inexperienced at a high level of competition, after learning the game in his native New Zealand. He is an aggressive, fluid 7-footer.
- Dennis Schroeder, the German point guard making a late charge up draft boards, has singled out Utah and Milwaukee as preferred destinations on draft night. The disclosure is particularly relevant because the interest may be mutual and both will probably be picking in the right range, with the Jazz at 14 barring a long-shot climb into the top three on lottery night and the Bucks at 15. As Schroeder himself pointed out, the Jazz have the position need as Mo Williams heads into free agency (with a good chance they’d have the need even if Williams wasn’t). When asked what he considered the best place to start his NBA career, he mentioned Utah first. Milwaukee is a possibility with Brandon Jennings about to become a free agent. That draft-night decision by the Bucks, if Schroeder is available at 15, will be as much about weighing their future with Jennings as weighing Schroeder. And if they draft one and re-sign the other, it creates trade chips. Schroeder said he has scheduled a work out with the Rockets as well as the Jazz and Bucks. Houston picks 18, though. At this rate, he’ll be long gone.
- McLemore-Shabazz Muhammad was once shaping up as the best matchup once individual workouts got underway for the top prospects following the lottery. No more. Now it’s Schroeder-Trey Burke, even if Michael Carter-Williams, not Schroeder, remains the second-best prospect among point guards. The warp speed of Schroeder, the tournament-tested experience of Burke, the drive of both – that’s a great show.
- One GM, on Tony Mitchell, once a possibility for the lottery but now trying to hold on to a spot in the first round after a difficult season at North Texas: “He’s the best athlete here. It’s not even close. He’s a freak of nature.”