Losing arguably the best, most explosive—not to mention continually improving—interior defender in America would cripple most teams, but Kentucky has the pieces to cushion the blow.
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein, in particular, not only has the chance to help his team, but to shine like he's never shined before.
You don't replace a player like Nerlens Noel. The flat-topped stud was averaging a gaudy 4.4 blocks, 2.1 steals and 9.5 rebounds per game. He may have been raw on the offensive end, but his unnatural combination of explosiveness and feel for the game on the defensive side made him one of the most feared inside players who was impossible to prepare for.
Against Ole Miss, he took one shot, missed six of his eight free throws, and won the game for the Wildcats:
Very few players on this planet can make an impact like that.
But Cauley-Stein is far from incapable or unproven.
In 20 games this season, the seven-footer is averaging exactly 20.0 minutes per game. He is a raw offensive player much like Noel, but he is compiling 1.7 blocks, 0.8 steals and 5.5 rebounds per contest.
While those numbers aren't as video-game-esque as Noel's on the surface, consider a comparison of the two studs on a possession-based basis (via StatSheet.com):
Cauley-Stein still isn't on Noel's level, but as you can see, he is a slightly more efficient (and competent) offensive player, better at crashing the offensive glass and at the same time very good at protecting the rim (ninth in the conference in block percentage).
This isn't to say it will be a seamless transition.
Who is most important in Nerlens Noel's absence?
On the defensive end, Cauley-Stein has worse instincts and less explosiveness that Noel. As a result, he can't afford to wait as long when contesting shots and is forced to go after more pump fakes, thus fouling at a much quicker rate.
Noel fouled only once every 12.34 minutes, but Cauley-Stein is fouling once every 9.52 minutes.
The young Kansas native has a chance to at least mimic Noel's ridiculous production with more minutes, but he is going to have to find a way to stay on the court longer.
He has hit the 30-minute mark just once this season.
If he accomplishes that, not only will it benefit Kentucky and take a much-needed burden off Alex Poythress (struggling massively with confidence as of late) and Kyle Wiltjer (not a competent interior defender), but it would also be in his own best interest.
Consensus from NBA scouts: Noel's injury could propel Willie Cauley-Stein into lottery if he plays well in Noel's absence.— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) February 13, 2013
That's not exactly surprising.
Where will Cauley-Stein go in the draft?
Cauley-Stein is 7'0", 245 pounds, and as evidenced by his days in high school as a wide receiver, has uncanny mobility for a player of his size.
Especially in what is regarded as a weak draft class, NBA personnel would fall over themselves to get a player with that type of potential who can shine on the brightest collegiate stage.
If Cauley-Stein proves that he can stay on the floor for 30 minutes per game, still produce at the same rate and show a little bit of a necessary mean streak, then a top-10 pick is far from out of the question.
You never want to see a devastating injury to a guy like Noel, but where one door momentarily closes, another is blasted wide open by a talented giant.