Is Nerlens Noel worth the No. 1 pick?

Comparing Nerlens Noel to similar players from earlier drafts could indicate his career path. ESPN

The short answer is yes. But you’re not here for the short answer.

At 6-foot-11 and a feathery 201 pounds, Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel has stats and physical characteristics that compare to four players: Tyrus Thomas, Derrick Favors, Greg Oden and Chris Bosh.

Part of the reason is age. All of these players were younger than 20 years old when they were drafted. Another reason is that they were all drafted in the top five.

A detailed look at the stats, though, suggests that Noel comes up a little short on most offensive metrics. He was a role player in college with limited skills, taking only 15 percent of Kentucky’s shots when on the floor. Looking at his statistical comparisons in the NBA, Tyrus Thomas hasn’t developed an offensive game, Derrick Favors is still a work in progress, Greg Oden never had a chance to develop, and Bosh serves as the main offensive star among the group – and he still gets criticized. Noel’s effective field goal percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and limited shot use all point at a player who won’t immediately make an impact on the offensive end in the NBA.

On the defensive end, Noel posted some special numbers in college. His block rate was 13 percent higher in college than any of those four players. His steal rate was 70 percent higher. And his defensive rebound rate was higher than Favors or Bosh. All of this while committing not even three fouls per game.

What this means is that Noel should be an immediate ball hawk on defense. He’ll force turnovers and alter shots. He’ll rebound at a high level. He may be the best defensive player to come out of college in years. As NBA teams emphasize more and more to play defense without fouling, having a defensive big who won’t get into foul trouble and can stay on the court is very important.

As to staying on the court – one obvious red flag is the torn ACL that ended Noel’s freshman season and has limited his workouts. It is expensive for teams to acquire players who will miss significant time. How much did it cost Portland to have Greg Oden on the bench for so many years? How much did it cost Philadelphia to have Andrew Bynum on the bench? This is a cost not only in dollars, but in the jobs of coaches and management. Cleveland GM Chris Grant is absolutely checking to make sure his pension is funded before taking an injury-prone big man with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

In conclusion, there is major risk in selecting Nerlens Noel with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Fortunately, this is risk with potentially great reward. Noel’s defensive prowess can be hugely valuable in the NBA, where protecting the paint is so important. If he is selected No. 1, that paint protection is what is being banked on. If he drops, it’s his offense, his injuries, and the job security of GMs that cost him.