Here’s what you need to know about Thursday’s NBA draft: Nerlens Noel averaged 10.5 points as a Kentucky freshman until his season ended early because of a serious knee injury.
Now he’s the likely No. 1 pick.
Noel still can’t jump because of surgery for a torn ligament and might not even play until two months into the NBA season. But he can block shots and rebound and . . . what else exactly?
If he turns out to be a solid pro, his delayed NBA debut is a small price for a team to pay over the four-year run of his rookie contract. But the Noel case is indicative of one of the weakest drafts in recent memory.
This certainly isn’t 2003, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were among the top five picks.
Want more ambiguity? Don’t look any further than our own backyard.
Some NBA minds think Shabazz Muhammad is already ready, legitimizing his ballyhooed reputation before he even landed at UCLA as a one-year rental. Others think he’ll need some time to develop. Still others think that might never happen.
And who’s this Alex Len guy?
Like Noel, he’s a big man who underwent surgery (ankle). Unlike Noel, his physical measurements mysteriously weren’t taken at the scouting combine, other than a wingspan of 7 feet 4.
And yet, there’s a chance the Maryland center, who averaged 11.9 points last season as a sophomore, will go very high in the draft.
Next year’s draft features once-in-a-decade prospect Andrew Wiggins. In the meantime here’s a look at the possible first-round picks for this year’s less heralded (to say the least) crop.
Oh, and the Lakers won’t have a first-round pick for a sixth consecutive year. This one was traded to Cleveland as part of the Ramon Sessions deal.
What follows is our mock draft, with team, player, college/country, most recent year completed, position, height without shoes and weight.
1) Cleveland: Nerlens Noel (Kentucky, freshman, PF, 6-10, 206)
His college career ended in February because of a knee injury. Now he’ll sign a rookie deal worth potentially $23 million. God bless America. And the NBA.
2) Orlando: Ben McLemore (Kansas, sophomore, SG, 6-3½, 189)
What’s not to like about the draft’s top pure scorer? Par for this year, though, he could be the top pick or slide a couple of more spots from here if the Magic and Washington, which already has two young scoring guards, take a pass.
3) Washington: Otto Porter (Georgetown, sophomore, SF, 6-7½, 198)
Hate it when picks make too much sense. Porter is plenty familiar with the Wizards’ arena after playing college games there. The Wizards have John Wall and Bradley Beal in their backcourt but need more scoring down low.
4) Charlotte: Victor Oladipo (Indiana, junior, SG, 6-3, 213)
Everyone knows about his defensive skills, especially after he set the single-season steals record at Indiana (78). But Oladipo had consecutive 16-point games in the NCAA tournament, including a late three-pointer against Temple to get the Hoosiers to the Elite Eight. Bobcats owner Michael Jordan has to like this feistiness
5) Phoenix: Anthony Bennett (UNLV, freshman, PF, 6-7, 240)
Remember when the Suns oozed talent in the frontcourt (Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Boris Diaw)? Those days are obviously long gone. Michael Beasley didn’t do much of anything at forward last season, so make way for Bennett, who has a decent post game and is a great finisher.
6) New Orleans: Trey Burke (Michigan, sophomore, PG, 6-0, 187)
The next Chris Paul or the next Sebastian Telfair? Both came with plenty of hype and not enough size. One prospered, the other was a career backup. The Pelicans got Anthony Davis last year at No. 1 overall and could use another young player to energize their fan base. Worth the gamble.
7) Sacramento: C.J. McCollum (Lehigh, PG, senior, 6-2, 197)
What to do with the Kings, who seem to have a new coach every year and threaten to move every other month? They hired Mike Malone last month and got a new owner as well, so now they can work on the actual product, which has been awful lately. McCollum was a . . . college senior! How rare. And how mature. Nice fit here.
8) Detroit: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Georgia, sophomore, SG, 6-5, 204)
The Pistons already have the frontcourt finesse of Greg Monroe and the potentially powerful Andre Drummond. Time for some backcourt help. Caldwell-Pope averaged an impressive 18.5 points for a not-so impressive team (15-17 overall).
9) Minnesota: Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA, freshman, SG, 6-5, 222)
Here he is! Here he probably won’t go! It’ll either be a few spots higher or a few lower, so why not settle for middle ground on the draft’s hardest-to-determine player. There were whispers he would be a lottery pick before he arrived at UCLA and now there are whispers he can’t create his own shot. Go figure.
10) Portland: Cody Zeller (Indiana, sophomore, C, 6-11, 230)
Not buying the Alex Len hype yet. The Trail Blazers had the steal of the draft last year, taking point guard Damian Lillard sixth overall. With Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, Zeller just needs to get rebounds and play defense. Easily done.
11) Philadelphia: Rudy Gobert (France, C, 7-1, 238)
Still not buying the Len hype. Gobert represents something lacking in this draft — foreign players — and also has by far the longest wingspan of any draft-eligible athletes (almost 7 feet 9). He will eventually take Andrew Bynum’s spot.
12) Oklahoma City: Alex Len (Maryland, sophomore, C, 7-1, 255)
It’s official. Now buying the Len hype. The Thunder can gamble on the suddenly hot center who wasn’t even all-conference last season (honorable mention). He can play behind Kendrick Perkins for two years and then take over in 2015. That’s a long time from now.
13) Dallas: Mason Plumlee (Duke, senior, PF/C, 6-11, 238)
The Mavericks still have Dirk Nowitzki under contract and Shawn Marion under contract and . . . and . . . a few other people. Maybe. Their needs are everywhere. Fairly athletic for his size, Plumlee was Duke’s best player in the NCAA tournament. Good enough for me.
14) Utah: Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse, sophomore, PG, 6-5, 184)
The Mo Williams experiment didn’t work too well last season when the Jazz finally realized what everybody else knew — he can’t play a full season without being injured. So the surprisingly tall Carter-Williams will be there for Jazz fans to enjoy . . . even though he’s a head taller than John Stockton.
15) Milwaukee: Shane Larkin (Miami, sophomore, PG, 5-10, 171)
Strange team, the Bucks. Went from two great backcourt scorers (Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings) to potentially none. Both are free agents. So that means . . . Milwaukee needs a point guard! The son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin fills a need despite his lack of height.
16) Boston: Jeff Withey (Kansas, senior, C, 6-11, 222)
If the Celtics trade Kevin Garnett and don’t get a big man back, the only center on their roster is Fab Melo. Uh-oh. Withey set the Jayhawks’ record for career blocked shots (312). He also had 16 points and 16 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game against North Carolina. Surely Danny Ainge already knows that.
17) Atlanta: Tony Snell (New Mexico, junior, SG, 6-6, 198)
About the only thing the Hawks don’t need is a center, so take your pick on which way they go. The hot-and-cold Snell was only third-team All-Mountain West Conference but ended up being the MVP of the conference tournament. Then he had only nine points as New Mexico was upset by Harvard in an NCAA tournament opener.
18) Atlanta: Dennis Schroeder (Germany, PG, 6-1, 165)
Nothing special here, but the Hawks need something better than Jeff Teague. Schroeder has decent speed and is a decent shooter. Basically, he’s already an upgrade at the position.
19) Cleveland: Steven Adams (Pittsburgh, C, 6-11, 255)
Moment of silence for where the Lakers would have picked. Some teams just hate the draft. Sigh. At any rate, Cleveland gets another big young player. Anderson Varejao is getting older and Adams can be the backup plan in case Nerlens Noel doesn’t pan out.
20) Chicago: Sergey Karasev (Russia, SF, 6-7, 203)
His dad is a basketball coach, so you know his basketball IQ is solid. Was only a bit player on the Russian national team that took bronze at last year’s London Olympics. He might not be quite ready for the NBA, but the Bulls don’t need him yet. See ya next year?
21) Utah: Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga, junior, PF/C, 6-11, 234)
Utah hopes that Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors are good enough to replace free agents Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Gulp. If the Jazz isn’t quite sure, it can always go for Olynyk, who can score a lot, rebound a little and even shoot three-pointers every once in a while.
22) Brooklyn: Tony Mitchell (North Texas, sophomore, PF, 6-8, 236)
This year’s version of Kenneth Faried — think undersized but strong. He can rebound, block shots and, unlike Faried, can make threes. Kris Humphries lost his starting job to Reggie Evans, so the Nets would be wise to grab this high-energy power forward.
23) Indiana: Erick Green (Virginia Tech, senior, PG, 6-2, 178)
The Pacers came so close to beating Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. If only they had more consistency at point guard. Green averaged a ridiculous 25 points for the Hokies last season, including a two-game total of 47 against Duke. Yeah, that’ll work.
24) New York (Ricky Ledo, Providence, SG, 6-5, 197)
Tough call here. Ledo never played a game for Providence after being declared academically ineligible but reportedly was impressive after the NCAA allowed him to take part in team practices. In case J.R. Smith leaves via free agency, the Knicks will gladly take Ledo, the nation’s sixth-best high school prospect a year ago according to Rivals.com.
25) Clippers (Pierre Jackson, Baylor, senior, 5-10, 176)
Eric Bledsoe is a free agent in a year, so it makes sense for the Clippers to get a point guard here even if they re-sign Chris Paul. Why not make the undersized but speedy Jackson the eventual backup to Paul?
26) Minnesota: Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State, junior, SG, 6-4, 191)
Franklin was the only Division I player to lead his team in scoring (17 points a game), rebounding (9.5), assists (3.3) and steals (1.6). He also comes with a tough on-court reputation, which the Timberwolves won’t mind at all.
27) Denver: Reggie Bullock (North Carolina, junior, SG, 6-6, 200)
What will Brian Shaw do after finally getting his first gig as a head coach? Bullock shot 43.6% from three-point range last season. Solid insurance in case Nuggets shooter Danilo Gallinari doesn’t make it back from a knee injury until late next season.
28) San Antonio: Gorgui Dieng (Louisville, junior, PF/C, 6-10, 230)
Which late draft gem will the Spurs unearth this year? There won’t be any Tony Parkers, Kawhi Leonards or Manu Ginobilis here. But there will be Dieng. Tiago Splitter was pretty awful in the NBA Finals and Tim Duncan is 37, so the Spurs should target Dieng. He was the Big East’s defensive player of the year, more than covering for his low 9.8-point scoring average.
29) Oklahoma City: Glen Rice Jr. (Georgia Tech, junior, SG, 6-5, 211)
Strange trip to the NBA. He was booted off Georgia Tech’s team a year ago after a nightclub incident but was solid last season in the NBA’s Development League. He averaged 25 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his last 10 games for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He’ll help if Kevin Martin leaves via free agency.
30) Phoenix: Tim Hardaway Jr. (Michigan, junior, SG, 6-5, 199)
The final first-round pick is always the draft’s happiest guy. He gets at least two years of guaranteed money while second-round picks get no such thing. Congrats to Hardaway, who lacks the scoring prowess of his father but might be a pleasant surprise this late.