NEW YORK – Nerlens Noel is coming off a major knee injury. Alex Len is in a walking boot.
One of them could be the No. 1 pick Thursday in an NBA draft that appears short on stardom, and neither looks ready to get his career off to a running start.
“This draft is really unpredictable, a lot of guys with injuries and you don’t have any like LeBron James,” Len said Wednesday. “So it’s going to be interesting.”
Ten years after James climbed on stage to start a draft that goes down as one of the best in recent memory, the No. 1 pick again belongs to Cleveland.
The Cavaliers won’t find anyone who can play like James on the court – if they keep the pick – and even the climbing the stage part will be a challenge for the big men who opened their college seasons against each other and now are competing again.
Noel tore the ACL in his left knee on Feb. 12, ending his lone season at Kentucky. The 6-foot-11 freshman led the nation in shot blocking and his conference in rebounding but hasn’t been able to show the Cavaliers if his offensive game has grown.
The only basketball work he did during his visit to Cleveland was shooting some free throws. Perhaps the pants he wore with his sports jacket and orange tie were just too tight, but Noel was walking gingerly as he exited a hotel ballroom after meeting with the media Wednesday.
“I wanted to do more. Unfortunately I got hurt, but I mean I definitely felt right before I got injured I was really coming along as a player and just really coming into my own during that part of the season,” Noel said. “But like I said, unfortunately I got hurt, so I wasn’t able to show as much as I wanted to.”
Nor has Len, but that hasn’t stopped the 7-1 center from the Ukraine who spent two seasons at Maryland from climbing into the mix at No. 1. His left foot started bothering him around February, and he found out after the season that it was a stress fracture.
He was aware he was projected as a top-10 pick before the draft combine but may go much higher even though his visits to teams have consisted of nothing more than interviews. He no longer needs crutches but will be in the boot for perhaps two more weeks.
So, with all these injury questions, what about playing it safe and picking a healthy guy?
“I mean, probably a lot of people wish it could be that easy,” Kansas guard Ben McLemore said. “But it’s a process for the teams. They’ve got to see what’s available and what they really need. And like I said, this draft is up in the air and nobody knows what’s going to happen, who’s going to get drafted in which order.”
Orlando has the No. 2 pick, followed by Washington, Charlotte and Phoenix.
McLemore, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Georgetown forward Otto Porter and national player of the year Trey Burke of Michigan are among the other players who will hear their names called early at Barclays Center by NBA Commissioner David Stern in his final draft.
It’s a class that won’t draw any comparisons to the one that James led, which featured future Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, along with NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony among the first five picks.
Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King said a number of teams are trying to trade out of the draft and acquire extra picks for next year, which is expected to be a stronger class. But he doesn’t know if there will be enough teams interested in being trade partners to get those deals done.
“There are good players in this draft, but right now, there are not impact players. What I mean by that is that there’s no one you look at in this draft that within two years will be an All-Star, say like Kyrie Irving was, players like that,” said Minnesota Timberwolves president Flip Saunders, referring to the guard Cleveland took with the No. 1 pick in 2011.
“And so in order for you to move up and dilute your talent pool and your roster, you’ve got to get an impact-type player, and I just don’t believe ... there’s good players, probably pretty good players in this league, but are they going to be that impact player who’s going to be an All-Star or future Hall of Famer? That’s what you don’t see. And sometimes that’s something you don’t see for two or three years in a row.”
McLemore has in some ways been hurt by healthy, since by being able to work out he’s given teams something to nitpick. Noel and Len have been largely free of criticism while sitting on the sideline.
Instead, Len is hoping his first impression of the season is one that holds up, when he had a career-high 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks against Noel in Maryland’s loss to Kentucky, right in the building where they will be Thursday.
“I did well against him. So it’s not up to me, it’s up to teams,” Len said of a team choosing between the two.
Neither player said he knows what the Cavs will do. There has been speculation they are open to dealing the pick, something teams rarely consider in a year with a clear-cut No. 1.
Noel said he had gotten no sense from the Cavs that they had concern about his knee, which could keep him off the court until early in the regular season. And in a draft full of questions, he believes selecting him is the right answer.
“I’m a good teammate, I definitely love to work,” Noel said. “I want to get better. I want to be great, I want to reach my potential, be the best player I can be. I definitely do countless hours in the gym, and I’m definitely working to get there.”
AP Basketball Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.