The image was horrifying: Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel, a defensive-minded menace whom many, if not most, NBA general managers had pegged as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, lay on the floor during a Feb. 12 game in Gainesville, Fla., clutching his left knee in agony, a torn ACL ending his season. The 18-year-old's chances of being the top selection in June appeared to disappear that night.
Or did they? As the college basketball season winds down, general managers are beginning to believe that Noel, knee injury and all, won't get past the top three picks if he declares for the draft. And multiple GMs say they would take him No. 1. Here's why:
Yes, it's a torn ACL. But modern medicine has made this kind of knee injury easily correctable. Adrian Peterson, Wes Welker, David West and Jamal Crawford are just a handful of athletes who have torn the ligament and bounced back better than ever.
"He is looking at about nine months," said Dr. Victor Khabie, chief of surgery and sports medicine at Northern Westchester (N.Y.) Hospital. "In all likelihood, he will be jogging in four months, doing agility drills in between four to seven months, and his activity level will be determined after that.
"The surgery has advanced in the last 10 years. We have spent a lot of time and research figuring out where is the best place to put in the new ACL. Being young is a huge benefit. In general terms, younger patients bounce back quicker. The muscles around the knee are more adaptable. How quickly the player gets his muscle tone back is a big factor in when he comes back."
Several NBA GMs -- undoubtedly hearing similar information from their own medical staffs -- expressed no concern over Noel's recovery.
"There is so much information now about how people recover, it's easy to predict that he will be fine," a Western Conference GM said. "It's a common injury now. It won't make a difference to a team with a chance to draft him."
Added a Western Conference executive: "It's not an Amar'e [Stoudemire] injury. I'd still take him No. 1."
Calling the '13 draft class weak has become cliché. One of the reasons the trade deadline was so quiet, however, was because few teams were willing to part with first-round picks.
"All year long, people have been saying the draft sucks," another West executive said. "But teams are fighting each other for first-round picks. Draft picks are gold. There is a shift where people are starting to think that the draft may not be as good as we want it to be, but there are still good NBA players in it. And just getting a moderately effective player is incredibly valuable with the new CBA."
Said an East executive: "You can find players who can help your team. But the 'star' players are lacking in this draft. I think it will be as hard as ever to find a second-rounder that can make your team and contribute in the future."
Most execs agree that the draft is short on superstars. Kansas' Ben McLemore is a dynamic 2-guard, with prototypical size (6-foot-5) and a flawless stroke. Beyond that, though, there is uncertainty. There are plenty of attractive projects (Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, UNLV's Anthony Bennett, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad) but few certainties. Noel is a raw offensive player, but his motor and defensive instincts are already NBA-ready.
Even if Noel's recovery costs him the entire 2013-2014 season, the consensus is that his potential makes drafting him high a no-brainer. The 6-11, 216-pound Noel needs to bulk up and doesn't have any go-to offensive moves. But whether it is at power forward or center -- it's unclear what position he'll play in the NBA -- Noel is expected to develop into a top-shelf shot blocker and rebounder.
"He has a skill set that you can't teach," a West executive said. "He runs the floor, blocks shots and has the heart and passion you don't see in a lot of bigs. He is only going to get better. You can't pass on a guy like that."
Added an East assistant GM: "I would be shocked if he wasn't drafted in the top four. He's not Anthony Davis. But look at Davis right now. As good as I think he is, he isn't close to a finished product. You are going to have to be patient with Noel. But with his tools, he can be a big-time player."
? Pittsburgh freshman Steven Adams surprised many by deciding to declare for the draft on Tuesday. The 7-foot, 240-pound Adams is loaded with potential. He has big hands, he is a strong rebounder and he runs the floor like a deer. But Adams failed to live up the hype that accompanied him from New Zealand, averaging 7.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in his one season with Pitt.
It's unclear why Adams decided to leave. One scout told SI.com earlier this year that the Panthers' system -- which didn't give Adams a lot of touches in the post -- was a bad fit.
Executives are split on where Adams could land. "He will get picked up late in the first round, as a project," a West executive said. Added an East executive: "I've got him in the 40s." That's not where Adams thought he would be when he came to the U.S. last year.
? Kentucky freshman Alex Poythress' decision to stay in school was a little surprising. It's not that Poythress doesn't need work. The 6-7 forward needs to develop his ball handling and perimeter shooting before he can become an effective NBA swingman. But Kentucky's ballyhooed incoming class figures to cut into Poythress' minutes and shot attempts. Still, one GM said that how Poythress looks in practice next season will be just as important as how he looks in games.
? The most interesting player in the draft could be Indiana's Cody Zeller. The 7-footer was considered a high lottery pick before the season. But inconsistency, a short wingspan and unpolished perimeter skills have sent his stock into a free fall.
One executive suggested that Zeller could be this year's Perry Jones. The former Baylor star was regarded a lottery pick after his freshman season in 2011. But after a so-so sophomore season, Jones fell to the bottom of the first round, at No. 28. It's unlikely that Zeller slips that far, though. If he declares, he is likely to land in the late lottery.