Let's operate under the belief that after a year of hard work and rehab, along with some time to regain his feel and explosiveness, Nerlens Noel will return to full strength and be the player we originally projected him to be.
Noel entered his freshman year with lofty expectations, and Anthony Davis' success in 2012 didn't help. Noel was expected to replace Davis in the middle for Kentucky, who broke the single-season freshman record for blocks in a season.
ESPN's Dave Telep, arguably the most respected scouting and recruiting mind in the industry, hyped up Noel as the best high school shot-blocker he'd seen.
People looked at me cross ways when I said Nerlens was a better shot blocker as a HS player than Anthony Davis. 10 blocks tonight.
— Dave Telep (@DaveTelep) January 30, 2013
Noel played 24 games prior to the injury at Florida. Before going down, he was leading the country in shot-blocking at 4.4 blocks per game. He totaled 106 blocked shots in that span, not too far from the 116 shots Davis' blocked in his first 24 games at Kentucky.
However, Noel broke out late, and once he broke out, it was like the light turned on.
During a six-game stretch in January, Noel swatted a mind-boggling 46 shots (7.6 per game), including a 12-block performance at Ole Miss that was one of the greatest individual showings I've seen.
Though Noel and Anthony Davis will forever be linked, they project as completely different players at the next level.
Which brings us to Noel's ceiling comparison, in which I have two.
Though he might be slightly on the skinny side at just 19 years old, Noel has an incredible upper body with broad shoulders and plenty of room for added bulk. Unlike Anthony Davis, Noel projects as a defensive anchor in the middle.
Between his unteachable defensive instincts, incredible 7'4'' wingspan and elite athleticism for a center, Noel has the chance to become the next Dikembe Mutombo or Tyson Chandler.
These guys define the term rim protector. Rarely do either of them leave the paint, making it an adventure for penetrating guards to finish or for opposing big men to get uncontested looks.
The argument that Noel has no offensive game irritates me more than a relentless mosquito. Mutombo had a career average of 9.8 points per game and is considered one of the all-time greats. Chandler's career average is 10.4 points. You don't have to have a Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon post game to be considered an effective NBA center.
I'm not even sure Chandler has made an offensive move in the last three years, yet he's still considered one of the top centers in the NBA.
Noel can swat shots as well as anyone, yet also has the size, athleticism and leaping ability to finish lobs, pick-and-rolls and tip-in dunks above the rim.
He's not exactly a polished post scorer, but Noel is an elite finisher (10.5 points per game on 59 percent shooting) and has shown fluidity down low with his hop step and over-the-shoulder jump hook.
In a draft like this one with minimal star power at the top, Noel is worthy of the No. 1 overall pick if he can reach his ceiling as the ultimate rim protector.
If Noel fails to reach his ceiling, chances are he comes out looking something like Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Sanders is an excellent athlete who simply makes plays using his physical tools. He's not someone Milwaukee feeds the ball to and watches him go to work, but Sanders' mobility, defensive instincts, size and wingspan allow him to sky above the rim and fly down the floor.
Considering Noel's physical tools and instincts, worst comes to worst a team finds a shot-blocker, rebounder (averaged 9.5 boards as a freshman) and interior finisher. But if you can be elite in all three of those areas, you've got yourself a long-term centerpiece and anchor in the middle.
Of course there's risk associated with taking an injured player, but assuming he handles the rehabilitation process in a professional manner, chances are he can come back stronger considering how young he is. Kyle Lowry, Jamal Crawford and David West all suffered the same injury and came back stronger with hard work and dedication.
Whether Noel turns out to be the next Mutombo or the next Larry Sanders, a team will have found themselves a valuable interior presence.