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Despite season-ending knee injury, Nerlens Noel should still enter draft

Nerlens Noel is expected to miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL Nerlens Noel is expected to miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

By Ben Golliver

This is a nightmare scenario within a nightmare scenario, but it's not a total catastrophe.

Kentucky announced Wednesday that center Nerlens Noel, regarded as one of the top prospects in the 2013 NBA draft, tore the ACL in his left knee during a Tuesday loss to Florida, an injury that will end his freshman season.

"Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback!," Noel tweeted on Wednesday. "I love you all and can't thank y'all enough for the prayers."

There is never a good time and place for an ACL injury but this is about as bad as it gets. Noel was less than five months away from the 2013 draft, in which he has been regarded as a likely top-three pick, and perhaps the No. 1 overall selection. His injury generally carries a nine-to-12 month recovery, forcing him to choose between returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, joining the team midseason once he's healthy, or taking his chances by declaring for the draft.

If he chooses the college route, he might only have a few months to showcase his skills before the 2013-14 NCAA season completes. If he chooses the draft route, he won't be ready to do any meaningful basketball work during the pre-draft process, forcing teams to evaluate him on his existing body of work.

The NBA's one-and-done rule prevented Noel, 18, from making the leap from high school to the NBA. Noel did everything he could to shorten his journey to the pros, reclassifying during high school so that he could enter college a year earlier than originally expected. And yet here, on the doorstep to the millions of guaranteed dollars that await top prospects, the pages of a carefully laid plan get thrown up into the air. At least that's how the story goes.

In reality, Noel now becomes a major case study for the one-and-done rule, which some see as a nuisance and a disservice to young stars who are ready to be chosen but ineligible to be selected.  Had the rule not existed, Noel was a virtual lock to be a first-round pick in 2012. His status for 2013 is thrown up in the air, for the moment, by the injury. It's too early to be certain about his 2014 stock. What a mess, right? Maybe not.

The shock from the gruesome injury is very real but there are a few good reasons to believe that Noel will emerge from this episode better than you might think.

An ACL tear is a major injury but it's become so common in the NBA that it's just a part of the game. Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush, Iman Shumpert, Ricky Rubio, Josh Howard, Lou Williams and Baron Davis have all suffered ACL injuries during the last year. The treatment path is clear and a player's ability to contribute post-injury has been proven. Executives selecting in 2013 can be reasonably certain that a player will able to do everything that was expected of him pre-injury.

GMs don't select teenagers, especially teenage big men, for their impact in Year One. Missing the first half or two-thirds of an NBA season would be an unconventional way to begin a career, but it doesn't spell disaster for the team. Some executives picking at the very top might feel a major urgency to bring in an impact player immediately, but that feeling dissipates quickly as you go further down the board. Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo selected Jonas Valanciunas No. 5 in 2011, knowing he would likely need to wait a full season to bring the Lithuanian center to the NBA. Would Valanciunas have gone earlier if teams didn't need to wait? Yes, but he didn't slip that far at all.

Once you get outside the top 10, the calculus becomes even looser. Last year, the Rockets selected Royce White, who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, at No. 16. The Celtics took Jared Sullinger at No. 21 despite red flag issues with his back.  White has yet to play a game for the Rockets this season and Sullinger recently underwent season-ending back surgery. An injured Noel would enter the 2013 as a far more promising player than White and Sullinger in 2012. There's just no risk of a free-fall here; it remains a no-brainer that he enter the draft this season because those guaranteed millions will still be there for him.

Indeed, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express wrote Wednesday that Noel is the "same prospect" he was before the injury and that he still expects Noel to go "one-to-three" if he enters the 2013 NBA draft. ESPN.com's Chad Ford, meanwhile, said that Noel would be "highly considered for picks two through five."

What, exactly, would a patient GM be getting in Noel? Here's Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis on his impact.

This is the first time in the long, storied history of the Fast Break that our Player of the Week went through an entire game without scoring a single field goal. That's how good Noel was in all other aspects of the game last Tuesday night at Ole Miss. It was a performance for the ages -- Noel had 12 blocks, seven rebounds and two assists in the Wildcats' season-turning victory. The most impressive aspect was the fact that Noel played the final 10 minutes with four fouls. Noel is obviously not a polished offensive player (especially from the foul line, where he is shooting an unsightly 53.6 percent), but he followed that up by scoring a season-high 19 points (to go along with 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocks) in UK's overtime win at Texas A&M. Noel is getting more confident every time he steps on the floor, which is why this young Kentucky squad is rounding into form.
While the inevitable first reaction for many is to fret over the impact to Noel's future and to lash out against the one-and-done rule, it's quite possible that Noel winds up proving that a terribly timed, major injury to a top prospect isn't the fear-inducing, career-altering turn of events that we might first assume. His potential makes him worth the wait and it's really not that long of a wait, especially when you consider that teams can hold onto top picks for up to nine years before they hit unrestricted free agency.
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