Longest of Shots: Noel Returning to UK - But He Would Have Fun

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In the next few weeks, if he hasn’t already, Nerlens Noel will make a life-altering decision. And you would think he’s leaning toward the choice virtually every “expert” has assumed he’ll make: Declaring for the NBA draft after one season, albeit abbreviated, at the University of Kentucky.

The video and accompanying photo of Noel’s knee injury at Florida make it, in a literal sense, painfully obvious that the right decision for the Massachusetts-bred big man is to enter his name and see where he lands. Injuries such as that, thankfully, are no longer referred to as “catastrophic.” Such is the state of medical technology today. A torn knee ligament isn’t the career-threatener that it was 15 or 20 years ago.

And as we all know, most high schoolers go the “one-and-done” route only because they’re forced to endure the “one” by an NBA rule prohibiting them from going directly from high school to the big league, before they’re “done” with at least a single season of college.
It’s a rule designed to protect NBA teams from themselves, by forcing future first-round picks to display their skills at the NCAA level before owners and general managers decide to make them instant multi-millionaires.

Noel likely would have been one of the few high school seniors with enough size and raw ability to prompt an NBA team to roll the dice and spend a lottery pick on him, had the rule not existed. But it does, which is why he became a Wildcat.

Noel, by most accounts, would have been the top overall pick in the draft, giving John Calipari a staggering third overall #1 in four years, following John Wall (2010) and Anthony Davis (2012). Mock drafts now have him a top five pick, which still means a financial future that will set him for life.

Thanks to the ugly injury, Noel now is the poster child for why college and pro basketball need to work together on a draft rule similar to baseball’s, where players can pursue professional careers immediately out of high school, but have to commit to more than one season of college ball, should they sign.

So the decision, formal or not, probably should have been made already – by Nerlens and his family. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve made my own decision about what I think he should do:

I want Nerlens Noel to play another season at Kentucky.

Crazy? Maybe. Risky? You bet (as in, gambling against another injury). Selfish? Believe it or not, no.

When Randall Cobb was mulling a leap to the National Football League, I couldn’t blame him at all, but I still wanted him to stay at UK – strictly for personal reasons. I really liked watching him play. He was an exciting, dynamic player, perhaps the best all-around athlete ever to play football for the Wildcats. And he made his team SO much better, as we learned the season after he was gone.

A Kentucky football team WITH Cobb was better for the Wildcats, the fans and the media who covered it. But not for Cobb. Part of a brutal sport where a player at his position has the shelf-life of a hot-house flower, Cobb made the absolutely correct decision to leave a year only. (The fact that he was drafted by my beloved Green Bay Packers was merely the best kind of bonus).

And much as I would enjoy seeing Noel play another season in Lexington, I want it strictly for him. And what helped make my decision was the tribute paid Noel, a couple of days after his injury, by USA Today. The newspaper fashioned the logo on its sports page after Noel’s signature haircut. It was one of the classiest things I’ve ever seen by a media outlet, a quiet, heartfelt way to let the fallen big man know that college basketball in general was thinking about him.
Monday came the announcement that Noel is a finalist for the Wayman Tisdale award, to be presented to the top freshman in college basketball.

Before the injury, Noel likely would have been one of, if not THE favorite to win that, and a number of other awards. And now, it’s nice when you hear he’s still included as a finalist. But he’s a long shot. He should be odds-on.

What I want for Noel is an Anthony Davis-type season, where he storms through college basketball, leading his team to a deep run in NCAA post-season play, collecting accolades and trophies and all the fun stuff that likely would have come his way, had his body not betrayed him.

As it stands now, he’ll be little more than a “What if?” story, a footnote to the 2012-13 college basketball season. “Kentucky MIGHT have done this or that, if only…”

As well, the injury likely cost him any chance at the notoriety that comes with being the overall #1 pick in the NBA Draft. Sometimes that follows a player, like a buzzard circling carrion. And sometimes it’s another entry in a glistening resume’. Noel should have the opportunity to make it work for himself.

The only way all of this happens is if he embraces the estimated (by me) one percent chance, eschewing the 99 percent, that he’ll return – leaving the multi-millions where they are (in the coffers of his future employer, whoever that is) and enjoying a full season of college hoops, complete with all the accolades he deserves.

I can’t imagine he would make that choice, but I’d love to see it. For his sake, not mine.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)

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