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Injury, risk reasons Nerlens Noel fell down draft board

Jun 29, 2013, 2:00 PM EST

2013 NBA Draft Getty Images

When Nerlens Noel first went down with an ACL injury, the reaction of most scouts and league executives was he wouldn’t fall or if he did he wouldn’t fall that far in the draft. He was still a top three pick.

But things started to feel different the last couple weeks. I can’t remember a year the presumptive top pick had more negative things said about him and his game in the run up to the draft.

Then come draft night he fell all the way No. 6, where he was taken by New Orleans and promptly traded to Philadelphia. Nobody seemed to want Noel.

What was going on? Turns out the knee injury and the risk that comes with it did cause him to fall.

When trying to do a good mock draft, you can’t just take into account the talent of the player and the needs of the team. The other key factors are the general manager’s/team president’s personality and his job security — is the decision maker in a position he feels comfortable taking a risk? Or does he need to go with a player he feels more comfortable with and can help sooner?

Noel, coming off an ACL repair that was red flagged by a couple teams, was certainly a risk.

Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert said on the night of the lottery he was tired of being in the lottery and wanted to be in the playoffs next year, and you know GM Chris Grant has heard that more directly. So come draft night Grant didn’t feel comfortable taking Noel — a player with potentially more upside than Anthony Bennett but a also a player coming off an ACL surgery with more long-term risk and a player that was not going to help much in his rookie season at least.

Henry Abbott at TrueHoop explained the idea this way.

There are different ways players fail in the NBA. If he doesn’t work hard, it’s on him. If he doesn’t fit the system, it’s on the coach. None of that threatens highly paid and career-minded general managers — in both scenarios they can keep their jobs. (I’ve even heard it suggested that some general managers keep sub-par coaches around to have someone to blame should it all go awry.)

But things go down very differently if the team fails because it bet on a player known to have been injured, and injuries are his undoing. That tends to be seen as the front office’s fault. When the engines fail in that airplane, there never seem to be enough parachutes for the front office guys. That’s just how it goes

Kevin Pritchard was the NBA’s next great GM when he drafted Greg Oden — on track to be alone at the top of a big budget team’s hierarchy. Then Oden got hurt. Six years after making that pick, and after a spell of unemployment Pritchard is still keeping his head down, trying to restore his reputation in Indiana’s increasingly crowded front office.

Does it matter that 29 other GMs would have taken Oden over Kevin Durant? No. (And any GM that says otherwise is selling you revisionist history, at the time everyone had Oden on top of their boards.) Injuries to a top pick can kill a career.

In Philadelphia, new GM Sam Hinkie rolled the dice and I think had a great draft night. With Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and crew this was at best a .500 team looking at a bottom three seed in the East and getting suck in a rut in the middle of the conference. They went all in on Andrew Bynum and missed and now they were stuck. So Hinkie blew the whole thing up — he is getting bad to get better. The Sixers will lose a lot of games next season but be in position next draft to get one of the top players in the best draft in a decade.

And then, maybe Noel will be playing — he has the most potential in this draft, 7-foot guys who run the court like a guard, can block shots and be a defensive force don’t grow on trees. It’s a good risk for Hinkie.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that — my job doesn’t depend on Noel coming around and being a productive player in a few years.

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