A legitimate center prospect should obviously have height (6'10" and up) and, more importantly, the ability to defend in the low post. With so many teams in the NBA playing small ball for stretches, the lines here can be blurred, though.
Ideally, though, a bigger body is still the desired player-type in the middle.
Under those parameters, there are a handful of prospects that project as centers likely to be taken in the first round of the 2013 NBA draft. The game has changed so much over the last 10-to-15 years that even some of these players may not pass for what used to be called a "true center."
The prospect sitting atop my list of center prospects is a perfect example.
Kentucky's injured big man Nerlens Noel is a shade under seven feet and very thin at this stage of his career. But his abilities to control the glass, block shots and protect the rim make him project as a center.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 14 in a game against Florida. The injury is a torn ACL, and while it has taken away his season, along with any chances Kentucky had at defending their national championship, the injury shouldn't hurt Noel's draft stock too much.
Torn ACLs aren't the death sentence they used to be, and because Noel is so young, a full recovery is more likely than not. Jay Bilas of ESPN told Kentucky.com:
"These aren't catastrophic injuries anymore. They used to be career-threatening. It's just career-delaying now."
This is not Noel's strong suit, and I doubt that he'll ever be a great shooter. He doesn't display the type of touch or form that makes you think he has a high ceiling here.
A set shot from 15 feet could be developed, and even a dependable jump hook would be nice for his offensive repertoire. But as of now, he doesn't show much development.
He did shoot 59 percent from the field this season, but most—if not all—of his shots came from within five feet of the basket. Noel was also a horrid free throw shooter, at just 52 percent.
Needless to say, this is an area he needs to improve.
As the season progressed, before he was injured, Noel was starting to show good vision as a passer. He was recognizing cutting players and making more effective outlet passes after rebounds.
With more experience and concentration on this area of his game, he should become an average-to-good passing big man in the NBA.
He averaged 1.6 assists per game, which isn't bad for a true freshman center.
Noel doesn't put the ball on the floor much, despite his good athleticism. However, considering his age and consistent playing time, his 1.9 turnovers per game weren't excessive.
With the style of game that best suits him, Noel just needs to increase his awareness while backing down his man in the post. He can also focus on making accurate and timely passes if and when the double-team comes.
This is another area that will improve with more experience and maturity.
Defense and Physical Attributes
Noel isn't a legit seven-footer, yet. Per NBADraft.net, he measured at 6'11" in shoes in his senior year of high school, when he also had a 7'4" wingspan.
At 18 years old, growing another inch or two is certainly not out of the question, but it isn't needed to make him a true center, either. His wingspan is more than sufficient to play in the post.
His weight and overall strength definitely need to improve, though. This is not uncommon for such a young man of his height.
As he matures, he will add more natural weight, but his frame will never accommodate a lot of bulk. He's slender in nature, and he'd be better off pursuing the type of lean muscle Kevin Garnett has.
Noel is an awesome athlete at the center position. He has tremendous speed up and down the court, excellent leaping ability, and good lateral quickness.
As of right now, this is one of his best attributes, and one of the traits that make his ceiling high as a player. Take a look at some of his highlights from what will likely be his only season at Kentucky.
In addition to his great athleticism, Noel also possesses excellent defensive timing. This helps to make him a great shot-blocker, and also augments his ability to deny and steal passes intended for the post area.
Noel averaged a staggering 4.4 blocked shots and 2.1 steals per game this season. Want proof of his impact on the defensive end?
In the 24 games Noel played, Kentucky allowed just 65.3 points per game. Since he has been injured, the Wildcats have surrendered 80.3 points per game.
Even though he's a bit lean, his length, quickness, timing and quick hands make him a better-than-average defender in the post.
His athleticism and basketball IQ also make him a solid perimeter defender for a big man, and that will be invaluable to NBA teams.
He is the type of big that will have little issue impeding the progress of guards in the pick-and-roll game. Overall, Noel is an excellent defensive prospect.
Mental Aspect and Potential
Noel's defensive-minded approach is a breath of fresh air, but his injury won't go unexamined, of course. It will cause some teams to think twice about taking him in the top five.
However, when you look at his upside and the hard work he's likely to put in to rehabilitate the injury, he should be looked at favorably by the time the draft rolls around.
That said, Noel probably won't be ready to go by opening night of the 2013-2014 season, so the team that selects him will have to be okay with bringing him along slowly at first.
If he had more on offense, I'd make his grade an A+. But Noel will always be a bit of a one-dimensional player in this regard.
His offense will likely improve, but I don't see it ever overtaking his defense as the focal point of his game.
Teams looking for a quick fix need not select Noel. But no team selecting in the top five should be looking for immediate satisfaction, as all likely will still be in rebuilding mode.
The fan base of the team that selects Noel will have to be patient. He will be coming off a major knee injury, and the team that selects him would be wise to exercise extreme caution with him in his rookie season.
I wouldn't call it crazy to think that he may not take the floor before the All-Star break.
NBA Comparison—Tyson Chandler Meets Larry Sanders
Noel's ability to command and anchor a defense reminds me of Chandler. Without Chandler in the lineup, the New York Knicks defense is just not as effective. Per 82games.com, the Knicks are -1.6 against opponents when he is off the floor.
Chandler is the only player on the team that renders a negative plus-minus total when he's out of the game. Noel can easily be that type of player in the NBA, as he had that impact with Kentucky.
Though Chandler has always been a good athlete, Noel is even more athletic, and is thus also comparable to Milwaukee's Sanders.
The Bucks' big man is ridiculously long and athletic, and those traits have helped him to a league-leading 3.16 blocked shots per game this season.
Other Top Center Prospects
None of the other center prospects that project as first rounders have the potential to impact the game like Noel, but they still have some value.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga—B-
Not many have Olynyk as the second-best center prospect, but I do. He is the most offensively skilled big man in the nation, and he has legit center size in length and bulk (7'0", 245 pounds).
He is an excellent shooter from the field (66 percent), from distance (39 percent), and from the free throw line (80 percent).
The only knocks on Olynyk are his lack of athleticism and modest rebounding totals (seven per game). With the right point guard, he could be a valuable pick-and-roll big man and solid post scorer.
NBA Comparison - Mehmet Okur
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky—B-
Cauley-Stein is in a perfect situation to improve his draft stock. With Noel gone for the year, he has stepped in to play the bulk of the minutes in the middle for Kentucky. But he's been up and down in the three games since Noel's injury.
He did have a 20-point, seven-rebound game against Vanderbilt, and a 12-rebound, seven-blocked shot performance in his last game against Missouri.
WCS can still take better advantage of this opportunity. He has better-than-average athleticism and the requisite length at seven feet, but he needs to get stronger and show more overall consistency.
He shows a good touch around the basket, and he's a force as a shot-blocker. In just 21 minutes, he is averaging two rejections per game. However, his 37 percent free-throw shooting is pretty ugly.
NBA Comparison - JaVale McGee with better touch
Jeff Withey, Kansas—C+
I like Withey a lot and feel that he's a bit underrated. He is a big-body center that knows his game, and he's an excellent shot-blocker.
He has the potential to be a very solid interior defender in the NBA. Depending on the team that lands him, he could even be a starter as a rookie.
Withey has improved in every season at Kansas. As a senior, he is averaging 13.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots per game. He's tough and nasty inside, and he will be a steal if he lasts to the end of the first round.
NBA Comparison - Omer Asik with better offensive skills
Alex Len, Maryland—C
I find Len to be one of the more overrated prospects this year. He's projected as a lottery pick in most mock drafts, but his lack of lateral movement and underdeveloped skill set make me wonder where his ceiling is.
At 7'1", 230 pounds, Len makes just 54 percent of his shots from the field. He did improve his free-throw shooting from 58.7 percent as a freshman to 68 percent as a sophomore, but his rebounding is only decent, at eight boards per game.
Defense is his best attribute.
Len blocks two shots per game, and he has a future as a lane-clogging big man. That said, he looks in absolute peril when matched against a player that can put the ball on the floor in any way.
NBA Comparison - Jason Smith
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