On a year-round basis, Ford is evaluating talent from across the college and overseas basketball landscapes and has developed a strong reputation for his predictive abilities. But while Ford's Top 100 list is updated throughout the season, he usually eschews going through the mock draft ringer that many fall into.
While Ford and ESPN released the addictive lottery game with over 2,000 possible outcomes, the expert had not released a mock draft until Tuesday. Coinciding with Louisville's national championship victory over Michigan and the ending of the college basketball season, Ford came out with his prognostications to the delight of many.
Looking at the entire scope of the first round, many of Ford's projections are in line with what was expected. All-everything Michigan point guard Trey Burke cemented his feet in the lottery this March, and plenty of other rising faces make an appearance.
That being said, there were a few selections that were curious in terms of value and need. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of the biggest surprises from Ford's mock draft.
Note: You can see Chad Ford's complete 30-team mock draft on ESPN.com. (ESPN Insider subscription required.)
Nerlens Noel Goes No. 1 Despite ACL Tear
There is no man in recent basketball history who has benefited from his inactivity more than Nerlens Noel. The Kentucky center, who tore his ACL in mid-February, went from a questionable top pick midseason to possibly returning after the injury and now, with the tournament complete, back to the No. 1 overall pick almost by default.
The man who had taken his place at the top of the draft board, Ben McLemore, looked miserable for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and seemingly played his way out of the top selection. The Kansas freshman shot 2-of-14 against North Carolina that first weekend and needed ascendant performances from his teammates to avoid going down as the Big Dance's biggest goat.
There's just one problem with Noel going No. 1: He just tore his ACL two months ago. It seems some have forgotten that an ACL tear is a debilitating injury, one ripe with an arduous recovery process that lasts at least eight months in a best-case scenario.
Perhaps this is the Adrian Peterson effect at work, but some folks have forgotten the massive inherent risk that comes with drafting Noel.
All injuries are different, obviously. Derrick Rose has yet to return from an ACL tear he suffered during the first round of last season's playoffs; Iman Shumpert has been back for about half of the season. The specifics of Noel's injury will crystalize over the coming weeks and months, but will we know enough come June?
Barring an injury between now and draft day, Noel is the only potential lottery pick with risk. McLemore wasn't great in the first two games, but he found his form against Michigan in the Sweet 16, and we may have been singing a different tune had Trey Burke's 29-footer clanked off the rim. It remains astounding how much weight we put on mitigating circumstances when evaluating a player's stock.
What's more, let's not act like the Bobcats are a perfect fit for Noel. Charlotte is already a team with massive spacing issues on offense. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo—essentially the building blocks of the Bobcats future—are all below-average shooters for their positions. Adding Noel to the mix would give Charlotte four players in its future starting five who can't make a three-pointer—this at a time when the league is (smartly) starting to emphasize outside shooting more than ever.
Rosters are fluid, and it's true that Noel has the most potential of any player in this draft. It's just a shock to see him locked in at No. 1 this early in the process when we know so little about his overall prognosis.
Mitch McGary Ascends All the Way to No. 12 (Portland)
What a difference a month makes for Mitch McGary. On March 10, he was the off-kilter big man with a ton of potential who could only make it eight minutes into Michigan's loss to Indiana before drawing four personal fouls. McGary was raw, looked more awkward on the floor than a seventh-grade school dance and had scored fewer than 10 points in 24 of 31 games at that juncture.
The thought of McGary being a one-and-done player was utterly laughable. A few weeks later, McGary was the second-most important player on the floor for the Wolverines behind Trey Burke. He was facilitating the offense through the high post, dominating with sheer physicality down low and scoring at a jaw-droppingly efficient rate.
Leading the way for Michigan at 16 points on 69.8 percent shooting and 11.6 rebounds per game, McGary was an overnight sensation. The freshman forward went from rotational afterthought—a guy who averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game this season—to everyone swooning over his existence. Grantland's Bill Simmons even got so caught up in the McGary hype he did some vigorous Google searching:
Bill Simmons @BillSimmons
Mitch McGary finally broke me - I just googled "last American white guy first pick overall NBA Draft" (ps: Kent Benson, 1977).2013-4-7 02:08:13
While Simmons was obviously kidding (we hope), the lottery hype for McGary is very real. His stock has gone from nonexistent to a Roger Sterling-level high.
The most prevalent comparison for McGary's future as a pro has been Warriors forward David Lee. Turner Sports analyst Steve Kerr made the comparison during Saturday's national semifinal against Syracuse, a point that was echoed by many in the lead up to Monday night—most notably by Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
“Mitch McGary has gone from a raw basketball player to a David Lee [type] in the shortest period of time,” Pitino said (via Boston.com's Amalie Benjamin).
McGary is the latest player to exemplify our inherent propensity to overrate the NCAA tournament. He played brilliantly in four games, very good in one and completely faded in the championship game. Pitino is correct that McGary went from a raw player to David Lee, but his most salient point was about the amount of time it took.
The wrinkles in McGary's game are still prevalent. He fouls at far too high of a rate, hasn't shown much consistency and still needs to work a ton on his outside shot. While McGary ultimately played his way into this discussion, it may be a little early to declare him a lottery lock.
Alex Len Goes No. 8 to the Thunder
On paper, the Thunder's need for a center is apparent. For the better part of two years now, some pundits and Thunder fans have implored the team to amnesty Kendrick Perkins' massive contract. The vitriol reached epic proportions when the team traded James Harden to save long-term money with Perkins on the books.
Chances are, Perkins is going to be around for the duration of his contract. The Thunder aren't going to have any cap space after the Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka extensions kick in anyway, and Perk is a beloved locker room figure who plays solid defense against the few NBA seven-footers worth guarding inside nowadays.
Len, theoretically, could be Perkins' future replacement. He needs time to develop, and the Thunder will need a backup over the next couple of seasons. It's all very neat and tidy.
However, lest we forget the last time Sam Presti went with conventional wisdom with a draft selection. The result was Cole Aldrich, who is currently on his third NBA franchise in three seasons and probably won't be in the league next season. Presti is no simple-minded general manager who makes selections based solely on positional need.
As such, the Len pick holds up in theory, not in practice. Len is a developmental talent who is at least two years away from being a full-fledged NBA contributor. He has a propensity for getting thrown around in the paint like a pit bull's chew toy, both a product of his seeming lack of toughness and obvious lack of bulk. There are some usable skills in his arsenal—Len is a very polished scorer when he actually decides to be aggressive—but they come out in intermittent spurts.
With Oklahoma City on the precipice of an NBA title within the next couple of seasons, Presti is going to take the best player on his board regardless of position. Ford has Anthony Bennett, Michael-Carter Williams and Gary Harris all still on the board when the Thunder picks. Len is an option for OKC, but the team would be remiss if it went with need over that trio of potential future All-Stars.
He's a possibility if the board starts to shuffle a bit or Oklahoma City picks later, but at No. 8, Len is too big of a risk for what may be the only usable asset the Thunder get out of the Harden trade.
(Note: Oklahoma City gets the No. 8 pick from the Raptors as part of the James Harden trade.)