By JOSH NEWMAN
Special to ZAGSBLOG
Yet when the moment of truth arrived, the Kentucky freshman center sat in the Green Room and slipped all the way to No. 6 and the New Orleans Pelicans.
That would have meant he would team up with another former Wildcats freshman sensation, Anthony Davis, last year’s No. 1 pick.
Noel and Davis were teammates on Thursday evening for all of five minutes, and Noel even answered questions about playing alongside Davis before he was informed of the trade.
The Pelicans took Noel’s draft rights, combined with a coveted 2014 first-round pick, and flipped them to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and Thursday’s 42nd overall pick. The deal was reported by Adrian Wojarnowski of Yahoo! Sports.
“This game is a business, but I’m definitely like I said staying positive,” Noel said.
The deal makes sense for both sides, although the Sixers are giving up one of the top point guards in the league in Holiday. The Pelicans are in need of a point guard with only Greivis Vasquez as a viable option on the depth chart, while the Sixers are in need of a big man with the future of unrestricted free agent center Andrew Bynum up in the air.
“I feel very well about that,” Noel said moments after learning about the trade. “They’ve got a great organization, too. I’m just staying positive about everything, definitely just working.”
“As always, very anxious moments at the NBA Draft,” Kentucky coach John Calipari tweeted. “I like where Nerlens ended up in Philly. I think it’s a great situation with a young team. I wish he would have been picked earlier, but that’s part of the game.”
Noel averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks in 25 games as a freshman before being lost for the season thanks to a torn left ACL suffered on Feb. 12.
Despite the injury, which will cause Noel to miss training camp and at least the first month of the regular season, his ability as a lane-clogger, elite shot-blocker and a still-budding offensive game kept him in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick. As late as Wednesday afternoon at NBA Draft Media Day, he had no idea where he would land.
“I guess I’ll just sit down and wait for that,” Noel said on Wednesday when asked what would happen if he’s not the No. 1 pick. “I’m not making any assumptions on where I go. I’m just happy to be here with you guys and ready to cherish this moment.”
Questions loom about Noel’s frail body. He said Wednesday he weighs 217 pounds, which likely isn’t enough to bang with big boys like Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard, or even Bynum, when healthy.
For a brief moment, it appeared the Pelicans were putting together one of the best young, defensive-minded front lines in the NBA. Between Noel and Davis, they blocked 292 shots in only 92 games at Kentucky. Noel set the single-game Kentucky record for blocks when he swatted 12 against Ole Miss on Jan. 29.
Noel and Davis are the only two players in Kentucky history with 50 steals and 50 blocks in the same season. Noel had 106 blocks and 50 steals in his 25 games.
Now he gets to slide into Philly and start anew with former Syracuse point guard and old BABC teammate Michael Carter-Williams, whom the Sixers chose at No. 11.
“I’m really excited,” Carter-Williams said. “Me and Nerlens grew up together. We’re best friends. We played on the same AAU team in high school. It’s like a dream come true. We always talked about how we were both going to make it to the NBA. For us to end up on the same team is a blessing.”