Nerlens Noel's first priority

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Cleveland had won the NBA lottery. The multiple interviews were over. And so, finally after an anxious day of rehab and waiting, Nerlens Noel stood up and let out a huge, audible sigh.

And then immediately folded his long, slender 6-foot-11, 206-pound frame into the arms of his mother, Dorcina. The hug lasted a few seconds. The smiles on both their faces will be with them quite a while longer.

This has been quite a journey. Dorcina, who hails from Haiti, has four children, all doing well, with three who have gone to college and one, her only daughter, in eighth grade as a rising star in basketball as well.

But for now this is all about Nerlens Noel and his path to being a potential No. 1 draft pick June 27.

He wasn't even supposed to be here, not in Birmingham rehabbing at the Champion Sports Medicine facility under the umbrella care of famous surgeon Dr. James Andrews and renowned physical therapist Kevin Wilk, who has worked on countless professional athletes in a variety of sports.

But a torn left ACL on a breakaway play against Florida on Feb. 12 ended his season and put his position in the draft in jeopardy. Had the injury not occurred, there probably wouldn't be a discussion about his position. He had matured into an intimidating presence for Kentucky, blocking and altering shots.

Noel's timing wasn't planned but has worked out perfectly. He was originally in the class of 2014 but reclassified and then graduated from Tilton (N.H.) before selecting Kentucky over Syracuse and Georgetown. Had he stayed in high school, any chance of his being the top pick in 2014 probably wouldn't have occurred with the arrival of Andrew Wiggins.

The season at Kentucky, the ACL injury, the possibility of being a top pick, the rehab and ultimately the chance to play with All-Star Kyrie Irving in Cleveland is all overwhelming.

"It has been surreal,'' Noel said. "It's crazy. I could be graduating high school right now, walking out on stage. I definitely made the best decision for myself. My year at Kentucky was the best year I've ever had.''

Noel said being in Cleveland would be a great fit. He said his shot-blocking would add to the Cavs and that he would love to play with Irving. The Cavaliers have had experience dealing with an injured No. 1 pick in Irving, who came out of Duke with a toe injury.

Cleveland general manager Chris Grant said last week during the NBA draft combine in Chicago that the Cavs value the draft process. Clearly it has benefited them quite well, with a roster that is loaded with young talent in Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson among others. Noel wouldn't have the pressure to play immediately.

He said he could handle it if he wasn't ready by the start of the season or was asked to sit the entire season while he recovers. There is precedent of top picks not playing in their original rookie seasons due to injury in Blake Griffin and Greg Oden. Noel said he wants to make sure he is a long-term success.

In polling the majority of NBA lottery teams this week, the leading question was Noel's recovery. There wasn't a consensus on his being the top pick only because a few teams such as Detroit and New Orleans have similar players in Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis, respectively. Teams still need to see the medical reports, and will talk to Andrews, Wilk and their staff. But they will get positive responses if Tuesday was any indication.

Noel moved down to Birmingham as soon as the semester ended in Lexington. Insurance is covering his rehab costs but he now has an apartment and is going through a Groundhog Day routine. He is in rehab by 9:30 a.m., out for lunch around noon and then back at it for a few hours in the afternoon. His mother and a close friend were down for the lottery. He has his former youth coach Chris Driscoll helping him and a media consultant, Steve Shenbaum, who is a former actor and an adviser to sports stars who handles media training. But his circle is small. Driscoll said an agent ultimately will be hired, but more likely closer to the draft.

His most important adviser is Wilk for the next few weeks and months.

"Nerlens is three or four weeks ahead of most people with an ACL injury,'' Wilk said Tuesday after putting him through a series of strengthening and stretching exercises. "He doesn't have any swelling, no pain, has a nice dry knee and everything has been smooth.''

Wilk said the recovery is looked at in blocks of time. Noel is shooting on the court now. He will work toward jumping and landing before they can get to scrimmaging.

"We're about three major steps away,'' Wilk said of Noel being cleared. "The advantage of waiting is maturation of the graft, and as that happens, the graft matures and gets stronger. Theoretically it will be stronger at 10-12 months more than six. The muscles can get bigger, the quads and hips can get stronger to take the pounding off the knee. That's the advantage of waiting.

"But the disadvantage is that there can be a confidence issue and competitiveness,'' Wilk said. "You don't want to lose confidence in your leg.''

Wilk said he's worked with teams before about whether Noel would stay in Birmingham during the rehab or work at the team's facility where he gets picked.

Noel didn't hesitate to come down here full time. He didn't want to commute from Boston. He wanted to show teams his commitment to his rehab.

He spoke with Orlando, Charlotte, Phoenix, New Orleans and his hometown Boston Celtics in Chicago last week. He's hoping he has to interview only one place on the road -- in Cleveland.

"I want everyone to know that I want to play this game, the game I love as soon as possible,'' Noel said. "I want to be ready. I've really benefited by being here. I want to come back as strong as possible.''

Noel said he likes being in Birmingham where no one bothers him and there aren't distractions. There was no crew hanging here with him. After the lottery show Tuesday night, he sat with his same group of four -- his friend Ricky, Shenbaum, Driscoll and his mom -- having a quiet dinner.

Noel has rehab in the morning again and the next day and the next day to ensure he is a long-term viable No. 1 pick whether he plays at the start or in the middle or at all next season.