“Since I was a little kid, like 8 years old, I’ve wished for this to come true, to play in the NBA and now it’s finally here,” said Noel. “All the hard work has paid off.”
Meanwhile, halfway around the globe in Ukraine, Alex Len didn’t know what basketball was all about until he was a 13-year old who was still participating in gymnastics.
“Dude, you don’t belong there,” explained Len, regarding how his first basketball coach escorted him off of the parallel bars and onto the hardwood.
“You belong on the basketball court.”
He did then, and he certainly still does now.
These two players have taken entirely different paths that have led them to nearly the same spot: The top of the 2013 NBA Draft.
Which of them will go No. 1? We’ll find out tonight.
Noel has been a shot blocking machine – probably the most gifted, as far as timing is concerned, that I’ve ever seen at the youth level – since he was a youngin’. As amazing of a defender as he was at Kentucky – 4.4 blocks and 2.1 steals in 32 minutes per game – before he tore his ACL in February, there are questions surrounding whether his body can support the weight that a big man in the NBA must have to compete and play big minutes. Moreover, scouts and executives are worried about whether he’ll ever gain the offensive skill necessary to thrive.
“I want to be great,” said Noel. “I want to reach my potential of being the best player I can be. I’m in the gym working to get there.”
On the other hand, the intrigue surrounding Len is centered around his relative polish and versatility on the offensive end, which should come as no surprise given that his development began on the perimeter before he blossomed on the interior at Maryland.
Our draft guru, Joe Kotoch, has had him slotted at No. 1 in our Mock Drafts for more than two weeks. (Latest Mock here).
“In Europe they let you play how you want to play,” explained Len. “When I came to the United States the coaches told me ‘Stay in the paint because this is where you’re going to make your money,’ so I started changing my game. I think it helped me because it made me more versatile. I think I’m more versatile than the other bigs.”
The ‘other bigs’ Len spoke of actually consists of one guy — Nerlens Noel, since they’re both viable options for the No. 1 pick in this draft, which has repeatedly been criticized for its lack of star power.
According to the late-rising Len, there shouldn’t be much debate as to who should hear their name called first on draft night.
“Definitely, I think I played against him my first game this season. I did well against him,” the 7-foot-1 Len said Wednesday, referring to the November 9th game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in which he went for 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks while Noel had four points, nine boards and three blocks in Kentucky’s 72-69 victory over Maryland.
“It seems like a long time ago,” he added. “But it was a great game. It was the first game of the season. I was mad because we lost, but it was great game for me. I showed that I have potential to be an NBA player.”
Having the “Potential to be an NBA player” is one thing; living up to the expectations that go hand-in-hand with being drafted first overall are an entirely different story.
Since “There’s no LeBron James in this draft,” as Len stated, it’s no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers would like to trade this pick and come away from the draft with a worthwhile veteran on their roster so they can attempt to make a playoff push this season. With less than 12 hours until the draft, you can bet that Cleveland is still taking and making calls to teams with players they’re interested in acquiring in exchange for the first pick in the draft.
And while everyone is reporting that the Cavaliers would like to acquire a big man like Noel or Len, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert just followed shooting guard Victor Oladipo on Twitter yesterday.
To say the first pick is up in the air at this point is an understatement.
In our past four straight mock drafts, colleague Joe Kotoch has reported that Alex Len is the likely candidate if Cleveland holds onto the pick.
Since I don’t agree with the Cavaliers said line of thinking with regards to drafting Len, I’d probably roll the dice on Noel.
What people fail to realize about Nerlens is when he played in prep school there were times that he brought the ball up the court and played point guard (in fact, he did so during the whole 2nd half of his senior season at the Tilton School). Nerlens is a gifted playmaker who, when given room to make a play out of the middle of the floor, has a chance to become a special player, especially given today’s spread-the-floor mentality that emphasizes big men who are able to make read-and-react passes to open shooters quickly.
“I think I’m a pretty good passer,” said Noel. “I can pass out of double teams and I think I can really use that as a strength in my game.”
Noel understated his passing abilities.
After all, it’s not every player that causes Tom Konchalski, the nation’s premier eye for basketball talent, to say “Nerlens: You can’t be the next Bob Cousy and Bill Russell.”
If I was the Cavaliers, I’d also still be looking into Victor Oladipo with vicious curiosity because his leadership, attitude and intangible skills – which were all on display during his three-year career for the Indiana Hoosiers – along with improved ball-handling, shooting and playmaking skills and vicious defensive mentality, could be precisely the injection of life that a youthful team like Cleveland needs.
In all likelihood, though, the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft will come down to two big men whose basketball evolutions began light years away from one another.
Jeremy Bauman is an aspiring shooting coach and scout who writes columns and blogs for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.