The worst fears Tuesday night became reality Wednesday afternoon, when the University of Kentucky announced that freshman power forward-center Nerlens Noel tore a ligament in his left knee in the loss at Florida and is done for the season.
The NBA impact is that the contender for the No. 1 pick is also probably out of the 2013 draft. Noel could still choose to come out and would go in the lottery, maybe even the top half of the lottery given the underwhelming group of prospects, but the bad news could prompt him to stay in school, prove to executives and scouts in 2013-14 he is healthy, and turn pro in a year.
Either way, the top of the ’13 draft board just became more of a game of darts while wearing blindfolds, which is saying something considering the level of uncertainty that existed before as teams privately acknowledged this was a good year to get as far away from the top pick as possible.
Two wings, Ben McLemore of Kansas and Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA, become the odds-on favorite — for the moment — for No. 1. UNLV power forward Anthony Bennett is also getting mentioned by front offices. If a team has a pressing need at point guard, Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State prominently enters the conversation.
The biggest implications of the Noel fallout? Indiana’s Cody Zeller goes from facing a lot of criticism from talent evaluators – no real improvement in his game, a safe pick for a solid career but no clear path to stardom – to arguably the best big-man prospect available. That could mean a move of several spots forward come June 27, even with the concerns and questions whether he is able to play center in the pros or will be a power forward.
Noel hurt the knee when he landed awkwardly going for a block in the second half of the game at Florida. He was on the ground in obvious pain for several minutes before being carried to the locker room and going to a Gainsville, Fla., for X-rays that showed no bone damage. He returned to Kentucky with the rest of the team and underwent a different procedure Wednesday that detected the torn anterior cruciate ligament.
He will undergo surgery in two to three weeks, the school said. Recovery time is estimated at six to eight months.