One of the hazards of this job is having to watch an injury like the one that happened to Kentucky center Nerlens Noel on Tuesday night. It's bad enough to see it once, but to watch it over and over again and listen to the scream that comes from Noel as his knee collapses is just brutal.
SportsCenter announced Wednesday afternoon that Noel tore his ACL. While they did not specify on the severity of the injury, the degree of flex (as seen in this photo) would indicate a high-grade sprain—likely a rupture.
But as bad as that sounds, and as bad as the injury looked, Noel's future is still bright.
His next step will be surgery. As several players at the NBA level like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo can attest, ACL surgery will take between 8-12 months to rehab. The surgery has almost become routine, with significant improvements in the rehab protocols leading to better results.
The recovery of Noel or any player with a similar ACL injury is becoming more predictable. Whether that is enough for an NBA lottery team to take a risk on the big man remains to be seen. There are plenty reasons—from the medical advances to the returns of athletes like NFL running back Adrian Peterson—to believe Noel will return to full strength.
I asked Bleacher Report NBA lead writer Jonathan Wasserman via email what Noel's draft position would be if healthy. Wasserman was unequivocal: "I expected him to go No. 1 overall in the 2013 NBA draft. He's the only prospect in the class with the ability to change the culture of a franchise."
Teams considering Noel might remember that Kenyon Martin, who broke his leg late in his last collegiate season at Cincinnati, was still the No. 1 overall pick. A broken leg heals much faster and more predictably, but Noel could enter the draft, be taken high and essentially "redshirt" his rookie season as he recovers.
Another possibility is that Noel returns for his sophomore year, hoping to establish his health and re-establish his position atop the lottery. Given the normal time frame for this rehab, Noel would likely be ready for the start of the 2013-2014 season.
Whether he would have the same athletic abilities that quickly is harder to predict.
Early reports said that X-rays showed no fractures. This isn't unexpected. The video and injuries clearly showed that the buckling in Noel's leg happened at the joint, not in the manner seen with Alabama receiver Tyrone Prothro, whose leg bent where it shouldn't.
The Kentucky press release did not mention any other injuries. This is a positive, especially given the position of the knee. The MCL would likely have taken some damage, perhaps significant, but current surgical procedure seldom repairs the MCL in cases like this, so it would be superfluous to mention.
The injury bore resemblance of what many consider the most gruesome injury in NBA history. In 2007, Shaun Livingston injured his knee on a drive to the hoop, rupturing two ligaments—his ACL and PCL—while suffering a Grade II sprain of the MCL. He also tore his meniscus and dislocated the patella.
It took Livingston 18 months to return to the NBA. He is still in the league today, though he is clearly not the same level of athlete he was before the injury.
Still, it's an encouraging sign for Noel that something so similar, and probably worse, had a positive ending. We will just have to wait and see how Noel, who relies on quick jumping ability for his signature blocks, recovers.