By LARRY VAUGHT
Jay Bilas could see Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel being the third Wildcat in the last four years — John Wall and Anthony Davis were the first two — picked No. 1 in tonight’s NBA draft. However, the ESPN college basketball analyst knows that Noel, along with other potential No. 1 picks, come with question marks.
Bilas has Kansas guard Ben McLemore listed No. 1 because he believes he is the best prospect and has the “most potential to be an all-star caliber player” in the years ahead.
“But he is not without question marks. I could have gone multiple ways with the top four (picks) and not necessarily been wrong,” Bilas said.
Cleveland will have the first pick tonight followed by Orlando, Washington, Charlotte and Phoenix. Every draft analyst, including Bilas, expects Noel to go in the top four or five picks.
The 6-11, 205-pound Noel injured his ACL midway of UK’s Southeastern Conference season and is now in rehab. It’s not certain when he’ll be able to play again after he missed the rest of UK’s season following the injury. He averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.4 blocks, 2.1 steals and 1.6 assists in 31.9 minutes per game. He shot 59 percent from the field, but only 53 percent at the foul line.
Noel, who had a 7-3 wingspan and is only 19, is projected as the top pick by DraftExpress.com.
“How often for a first overall pick do you say great defense, great shot blocker, gets steals and makes an impact on the defensive end but can he score and is injured? He’s going to be on stage (for the draft) on crutches, and that does raise questions. It’s not like he has a pulled muscle, but an ACL (knee) injury,” Bilas said.
“I think he can get better and will. Do I think he will be a really good offensive player in the league? I don’t. I think he can improve. I don’t see gigantic improvement. I think he will always be limited. He just does not have a great feel on offense. He’s worthy of a top three pick and if he went No. 1 it would not surprise me.”
Others considered potential high picks including Maryland center Alex Lenn, Georgetown forward Otto Porter and UNLV forward Anthony Bennett. Like Noel, Bilas sees flaws in each one. But why does he think Noel’s offense will always be limited.
“I don’t know that it will always be limited. I just don’t see him as getting that much better. I don’t see you teaching him post moves and he will be (former NBA great Hakeem) Olajuwon,” Bilas sid. “You play that long to this point and I don’t see him turning into a guy that will knock down jumpers and go into the post and have tremendous post moves. He does not strike me as being that type player.”
That seems fair.
“I think he is going to be better. He’s a hard worker, a really good kid and wants to get better. But I am talking about offense for all-star potential like he has on defense. His defense is all-star. I don’t see his offense getting there. But what I say does not matter. It’s really up to him. We are just projecting and evaluating.”
Bilas has no doubts about Noel’s defensive impact in the NBA. He dominated UK opponents before his injury and had a knack for making steals few big men possess.
“He is crazy athletic and really active and blocked a tremendous amount of shots,” Bilas said. “His shot blocking changes games. He does it different than Anthony Davis, but in a way better. He is really active. He plays hard all the time. He is a high volume rebounder. He runs and gets taels. Most guys his size do not get steals. He deflects balls, jumps in the passing lane and takes it away. Nobody in the county at his size blocked as many shots and had as many steals. He was by far the best at combining those two categories.”
Still, a No. 1 overall pick needs a total game — just like any NBA player.
“You have got to play both ends. If you can’t play defense, they go after you. If you don’t play offense, then they load up off you,” Bilas said.
Bilas noted that he thinks Indiana center Cody Zeller, who has seen his draft stock dip, is being undervalued.
“I am a big believer in Cody Zeller. I find it fascinating that we say Nerlens Noel can’t score but can improve as an offensive player,” Bilas said. “Then in the same breath we say Cody Zeller has not shown the ability to make perimeter jumpers. He is crazy athletic. He was hyped as (preseason) player of the year and had another really good year. If he is not the leading scorer and rebounder, that team does not win at that level. He is going to be a good NBA player. I think he can shoot it. I would not be surprised to see him taken in the top five.”
“I think this being a weak draft is totally overblown. I agree that there is not a no-brainer or no certain all-star for the first pick. There are some question marks at the top. In most years, the top five players in this draft would not go in the top five. But there are still a lot of good players. There are a lot of good values who will be solid players. I don’t subscribe to this is a weak draft. I don’t believe that.”