By now you’ve probably seen the video from last night: Nerlens Noel, a.k.a. the reason Kentucky had any hope of making a long NCAA Tournament run, crashing into the basket support and immediately falling to the floor in immense pain, eventually being helped off by teammates. Immediately in the wake of the injury, even before the severity was known, everyone was sad. The linked post contains an embedded tweet about the “very sad staff” surrounding Noel as he left the arena in a wheelchair, and John Calipari described himself as “physically sick” for his imposing big man.
Well, if you thought everyone is sad before, now the result of the play is official: Noel tore his ACL and is out for the season. His recovery timetable is 6-8 months. Now people are really sad for him, and rightfully so: just perform a simple Twitter search for “Nerlens Noel” and basically any word that describes a negative feeling and/or event, and up pops a whole mess of insta-reactions. Nerlens Noel sad, Nerlens Noel brutal, just plain Nerlens Noel ugh – John Calipari’s far from the only one sick about this.
Why’s everyone so downtrodden? Well, there’s the matter of how bad the injury looked and sounded, plus that it came on a hustle play, the kind of play that births phrases like “playing the game the right way.” But there’s also the matter of this…
The NBA Draft – you know, the thing he’s been working toward for a good deal of his life, the thing that, had he been born 10 years earlier, he could have entered out of high school and been in the NBA already (his status as one of the top high school prospects in the country likely would have resulted in him being a lottery pick). But Noel had to put in his year of college before striking it rich – and now that year of college has directly threatened his ability to strike it rich, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what college ought to do.
We all felt for Derrick Rose when he tore his ACL because he’s a great player, seems like a good guy, and ACL injuries, despite increasingly good track records of recovery (personified by this guy), are still among the most serious an athlete can suffer. But Rose was already in the pros. He’d already signed his big Bulls – and sneaker – contracts.
Noel doesn’t have an NBA deal yet, and now it’s up in the air as to what that deal will be like – and when it will come. You’ll remember his recovery time is 6-8 months. The 2013 NBA Draft is on June 27. That, you will note, is fewer than six months from now, leaving plenty of potential doubt in the mind of any team ready to make Noel a centerpiece of its future. His draft stock could be hurt significantly, enough that he might decide to go back to Kentucky for another year to build his stock back up – and also risk injury again, or teams souring on him for any number of other reasons.
And none of this would be in question had the NBA’s 2005 collective bargaining agreement not placed this artificial barrier in front of Noel’s NBA career, and that of any other prospect like him. The injury has many people – with good reason – addressing this rule, which many people have long considered dumb, but have never had a case so clearly highlighting its unfairness. Maybe it’s fitting that Noel’s injury occurred so soon after the mini-debate about whether South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who’d be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL Draft but is barred from entering for another year, ought to just sit out 2013 and not risk his draft status – it’s essentially the same debate, but sadly in Noel’s case, the hypothetical came to fruition.
But at least football, where players are almost universally physically unequipped to play professionals out of high school, has a little more of an excuse for restricting early entry. In the NBA, high schoolers used to go pro all the time. It wasn’t always a good decision, but at least the players could make it. The one-and-done rule leaves the future of a lot of these kids’ livelihood at least partly at the whims of fortune, while making even further mockery of the NCAA’s “commitment” to “integrity.”
Many suggest changing the rules to be more like baseball, which permits players to enter the draft out of high school but stipulates that if they pass on the draft for college, they have to stay for three years. It’s a point at least worth arguing, and the debate’s sure to intensify now – but it’s not going to matter for a while, considering the lockout-ending NBA CBA signed in late 2011 preserved the same draft rules. For at least the next several years (well, unless someone finally scores a victory that holds up in a lawsuit like this), the case of Nerlens Noel stands a chance to be repeated every year. Be physically sick for Noel, sure, but also for everyone else his age who can play basketball like him.
In fact, only one person doesn’t seem sick over this whole situation. That person: Nerlens Noel.
Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback!I love you all and can’t thank y’all enough for the prayers.
— Nerlens Noel (@NerlensNoel3) February 13, 2013
I’m praying, all right – that he comes back and blocks about eight shots a game in the NBA next season.
Photos via Getty