That fresh, boxed, high-top fade and bright smile is what makes Nerlens Noel stand out before he even hits the court. He has rocked that hairstyle since his days at Everett High, making him perhaps 3 inches taller than his listed 6 feet, 11 inches. For the past three months, the former Kentucky center has been scrutinized, evaluated, and judged on every aspect of his game.
And despite suffering a torn right anterior cruciate ligament last season, Noel could be the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft by the Cavaliers. That injury made it impossible for Noel to work out for NBA teams, so those interested are evaluating off his one season under John Calipari and his potential, which some believe is limitless.
He is long and athletic, the type of player who can chase down defenders like a cheetah after a gazelle. In an NBA that stresses defense, that relishes game-changing centers and encourages younger players to enter the draft, Noel could be a franchise player for the next 15 years.
“I think Cleveland is the perfect fit for [Noel]. Everything that I am learning now is that his knee is going to be OK,” ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford said. “I see a young man who’s an elite athlete who has a discernible NBA skill as a rebounder and shot-blocker who plays really, really hard, who has a great motor. I think he’s also a smart player. I thought before he got injured he was getting better every single game. I just think we haven’t seen the best of Nerlens Noel and he’s the third-youngest player in the draft.”
There are doubts, however. Noel, 19, frightened NBA scouts when he weighed in at 206 pounds at the combine last month, which is approximately the size of one of LeBron James’s biceps. Noel has since increased to 218 pounds, still slight but an encouraging sign for teams who may have envisioned him being battered in the paint.
Although Noel played his freshman season at Kentucky as an unpolished talent, the injury suffered against Florida was a reality check.
“It’s a different scenario if I was in that position [of being healthy] I would have thought about [staying in school],” he said. “I don’t think about that too much. I definitely feel like I made the best decision for me. I’m not surprised [I’m in the top picks], I have a God-given talent and I am going to use it in the best way I can. I think this injury will make me a better player and I feel there’s a silver lining there.”
That God-given ability was first noticed by Everett football and basketball coach John DiBiaso, who first saw Noel, who played football with his two older brothers, when he was a sophomore in high school. The lanky 14-year-old was used for alley-oops as a receiver.
“In Pop Warner he was actually a very good football player,” said DiBiaso. “Once his height got so tall I was a little leery about him playing in high school because he grew up to be like 6-8 and I thought somebody was going to take his knees [out]. He was a good wide receiver though. Basically I made him come to practice, so he could lift weights with our strength and conditioning people to get ready for basketball.”
DiBiaso said he never suggested Noel leave Everett after his sophomore season for prep school. Noel attended Tilton School in New Hampshire, where he developed into one of the most imposing centers in the country. Given that DiBiaso coached Noel’s two older brothers, Jim, who played defensive back at Boston College and is now with the Seahawks, and Rodman, who is a linebacker at North Carolina State, he felt Nerlens would have received better tutelage at Everett.
“I thought he would have gotten more with us,” DiBiaso said. “I think if you ask him honestly and if you caught him on an off moment, he would say he would have been much better off staying here. I loved him. We won the state youth championship in basketball. Everybody was saying his junior and senior year, he’s going to be like Patrick Ewing and put our school on the map for basketball. To say people were disappointed would be putting it lightly.”
It’s been a few years since they have talked, but DiBiaso harbors no hard feelings.
“He was a natural since he was 7 years old,” the coach said. “I’m 35 years coaching. I don’t want any money. I am not looking to run a camp with him or use his name. I don’t want tickets to anything and I never have asked. I just want what’s best for him. I feel bad he got injured and things and I hope everything works out. I am very happy for him. I am happy for his parents and I know how hard they worked. They didn’t come from much, those kids, I am thrilled for the family.”
Nearing the biggest night of his life, Noel is still a relative unknown. He will be drafted on potential, tabbed as a franchise player the moment he walks onto the court. He said playing for Calipari, the draft preparations, and the rehabilitation have all been learning experiences.
“I have to be ready for the grind that the NBA will put me through,” he said. “Playing for coach Cal is one of the best experiences. He’s taught me so much, on and off the court. He gets you ready for this. I just want to have fun and really enjoy the process. I know the road is going to be difficult, but I also know I have worked hard to get here.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe