Nerlens Noel realized his dream of becoming an NBA Draft lottery pick last night, just not in the position he, and virtually everyone else, expected. Noel, almost universally expected to be the #1 pick, wound up falling all the way to sixth, where he was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans, and then almost immediately traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Instead of Noel or widely speculated backup possibility Alex Len of Maryland, the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the world and took former UK recruit and UNLV freshman star Anthony Bennett #1. Judging by the reaction over at the SB Nation's Cavs community Fear The Sword, the reaction was almost universally negative, and most of them wanted Noel.
There was lots of speculation as to why Noel dropped so far, some intimating the rather stupid and groundless suggestion that it had to do with people around him, but the real reason appears to be Noel's ACL injury. Noel is recovering fine, but the injury apparently made the Cavaliers nervous enough that they felt more comfortable making an off-the-reservation pick in hopes of getting an under-the-radar mega-talent. USA Today had this to say:
Admit it, before Thursday night you couldn’t have picked Anthony Bennett out of a lineup with Anthony Mason, Greg Anthony or Tony Bennett.
The Cleveland Cavaliers taking the largely-unknown UNLV freshman at No. 1 was the surprise pick of this, or any recent, NBA draft. It was also reminiscent of a night two months earlier, when the Kansas City Chiefs took Eric Fisher, a totally-unknown Central Michigan offensive lineman, with the first pick in the NFL draft.
A surprise, definitely. Maybe it will work out for them, or maybe Bennett will be the new Kwame Brown.
Noel was definitely surprised and not happy to fall all the way to sixth, although he handled it with typical aplomb and not a little motivation, saying he would "...make them pay," in reference to the teams that overlooked him.
Jeff Goodman, writing for ESPN, says that Noel's slide down the draft boards was a blessing in disguise:
Noel will walk into Philadelphia as just another draftee while Bennett will have the weight of No. 1 pick when he arrives in Cleveland. There's a certain expectation that comes with being picked first overall, and some just aren't equipped to handle it.
There was no surefire No. 1 guy in 2013, and Noel may have avoided the pressure and the curse that came with coming off the board first.
I hate to say it, considering it's Jeff Goodman, but this is a fairly cogent point. Nothing can be more crushing than the expectations of being a #1 draft pick, and at #6, Noel can take all the time he needs to rehab his knee, work on his offensive game, and be ready to seriously contribute to a Philadelphia team that will have some really nice, young pieces in 2014. It is even possible, given the low expectations for Philly next season, that the 76ers could wind up winning the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes in next year's NBA Draft.
The 76ers also took Syracuse star point guard Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick, and Baylor's Pierre Jackson in the second round with the 42nd pick, although there is word that Jackson will wind up in New Orleans as part of the deal for Noel. If so, it will be tough for him to make that team, and I'd expect Jackson to wind up in open tryouts for somebody else later this year.
ESPN's Chad Ford notes that, while Bennett is a solid pick, he considered Noel and even Victor Oladipo, who went a surprising (to me, at least) second as better choices.
Overall, it is possible that Noel won by losing. As many will tell you, it is not the rookie contract in the NBA that matters, but the one after it. If Noel can fully recover from his injury and become the defensive presence that history suggests he can and possibly develop a serviceable offensive game, he'll be earning a lot more money in a few years. In any case, he's now a millionaire, and that's never a bad thing.