Depending on whom you ask, these two college freshmen are the top prospects to watch in the months leading up to the 2013 NBA draft. Both are slated to suit up for highly ranked, high-profile teams this season—Muhammad for UCLA, Noel for defending national champion Kentucky—though both figure to miss at least a few games apiece on account of NCAA inquiries into their eligibility.
Bureaucratic mumbo jumbo aside, how do these outstanding teenage talents stack up against one another?
The Pizazz of Shabazz
At this point, Muhammad appears to be the "safe" pick between the two. The 6'6", 223-pound shooting guard out of Las Vegas comes equipped with a physique that's as prepared for the rigors of the NBA as his game is. He's a solid shooter with a complete offensive repertoire, but is at his best when attacking the basket, thanks to his elite athleticism and all-around fearlessness.
On the whole, Shabazz's ball skills—whether he's handling the ball, creating shots for himself or setting up his teammates—are superb, particularly for an 18-year-old. He has the tools to be a top-notch scorer in the pros and the intangibles (i.e. tenacity, killer instinct, great "motor," toughness, intensity, leadership, etc.) to maximize his potential in that regard.
Those same qualities translate rather effectively to the defensive end. Muhammad's long arms and quick feet pair well with his drive and determination when guarding opposing wings.
As good as Shabazz has looked so far, be it at Bishop Gorman or during the 2012 McDonald's All-American Game, it's tough to project him as a franchise cornerstone just yet. Muhammad plays at a position that's relatively crowded with quality competitors in The Association. His body and skills are NBA-ready, though they're not particularly unique or extraordinary compared to the cohort against which he'll ultimately be measured.
He projects as a quality perimeter sidekick to, say, an All-Star point guard or elite front-court player, but to expect Muhammad to carry a team at some point down the road, especially considering that the short list of shooting guards in NBA history consists of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Jerry West, may be too much.
Still, the comparisons he's drawn to James Harden for his crafty game, as well as his left-handedness, shouldn't be tossed aside. And at least scouts, general managers, coaches and draftniks have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Muhammad and won't have to coax him into becoming the best player he can be.
No. 1 For Noel?
The same can't quite be said for Nerlens Noel. At 6'11" and 216 pounds, Noel has a ways to go developmentally before he's ready to bang bodies with NBA big men on a nightly basis.
As does his game. He's still incredibly raw offensively, without much in the way of post moves...or anything else, for that matter. Unless, of course, you count dunking as a skill.
Comparing Noel to Anthony Davis may be easy—if only because both are long, tall, athletic shot-blockers who play(ed) at Kentucky—but it's not exactly prudent.
Though, as far as long, tall, athletic shot-blockers are concerned, you could do worse than size up Nerlens against the Mighty Brow. Noel has all physical gifts and on-court instincts to be the sort of prodigious defensive force in Lexington that Davis was before he opted for the draft.
That being said, as one NBA scout told ESPN's Chad Ford in August, it might be best for interested parties to cool it with the lofty comparisons for now:
He's got the raw abilities, but he doesn't have any of the intangibles of Anthony Davis. I think he's going to get better and [UK coach John Calipari] will help him a lot. But I told my GM to temper his expectations. We're probably going to see a season closer to Andre Drummond's than Anthony Davis.
Drummond was hardly a world-beater during his one season at Connecticut, though he still wound up going ninth overall to the Detroit Pistons this past June. Surely, there are worse fates through which to suffer than that of an NBA lottery pick.
And because Nerlens is what he is—long, tall and athletic—he'll almost always be given the benefit of the doubt. No discernible offensive skills? Not enough strength? A lackluster work ethic? A tendency to lose focus and drift off during games?
No worries. He's 6'11" in shoes, his wingspan stretches 7'4", he runs like a gazelle and he jumps like a Jack Russell terrier. And furthermore, he's young. Whatever basketball skills he lacks now can surely be drilled into his flat-top fade before he goes bust, right?
Most of all, and unlike Shabazz, there aren't many (quality) players like him in the NBA. The risk in spending a top-two or -three pick on a kid whose frame and game are this immature is (to some) worth the potential reward of molding him into an All-Star up front in an ever-more perimeter-oriented league.
After all, big men typically take longer to develop, if only because it takes them longer to fully acclimate themselves to their bodies. Just ask Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, the two preeminent pivots in the NBA today, how refined their skills were upon arrival in the pros.
Take Your Pick
Such will be the temptation into which one GM or another will give on draft day in 2013. There will be the "sure thing" in Shabazz Muhammad, and the "one" in Nerlens Noel, whom Jay Bilas will shower with all of his favorite buzzwords. There will be those executives who see the next great wing in Muhammad, and those who would rather err on the side of size and shot-blocking that Noel brings to the table.
And then there will be those who bypass this contrived dichotomy entirely and spring for Indiana's Cody Zeller.
Good thing there will be a full season of college basketball during which to sort it all out...or possibly throw the whole discussion into even more chaotic territory.