Plenty of mystery in this year's NBA draft

It's almost always simple, a clear-cut choice at the top of the NBA Draft. And if it isn't one player who every team is craving, it is an either/or proposition — do you want Player A or Player B — that teams hope and pray they don't live to regret.

And then there are years like this one, in which you wonder why you need a draft lottery at all.

Through their play on the court, through the combines and physical testing, interviews and individual workouts, there is still no clear-cut No. 1. There are players who could drift anywhere from No. 1 to No. 10, making Thursday's draft one without star power, but a huge dose of mystery.

"From a fan's standpoint, I think it's an exciting draft," said Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations. "We don't know what the teams want. But it's a deep draft. It's fun if you're a mock draft guy.

"It's sort of in line with recent years, where we may not have those guys that make you stand up and go, 'This is definitely a franchise player.' One of my favorites is supposedly going in the second round. People are secretive. My dad (Marty Blake, who preceded him in his role) was asked by Geoff Petrie, 'Is this guy a first round pick?' He said, 'He is if you make him one.'"

That question and answer can apply to the top pick and just about every other one in this draft. The player who was thought to be — and still may be — the No. 1 choice is Kentucky's Nerlens Noel. But in his one season with the Wildcats, Noel played just 24 games before his season ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

He skipped playing at the NBA Draft combine and his slightly built frame and raw abilities, coupled with the injury questions, make him a mystery. The name Sam Bowie, an all-time draft day disaster, has been raised in comparison thanks to Bowie's well-chronicled leg problems that the Portland Trail Blazers ignored, and still plucked him for need with the No. 2 overall pick in 1984 — one spot ahead of Michael Jordan.

But no more certain is the second choice, who was thought to be Kansas' shooting guard Ben McLemore, but now may be Indiana's Victor Oladipo or Georgetown's Otto Porter. Or it could be Maryland's 7-foot-1 center Alex Len — except that Len could be the No. 1 choice.

"I haven't seen that in a long, long time," Blake said of the uncertainty surrounding not only the top pick, but the unknowns that will pepper the entire first round. "I need to go back, but it's very rare that the top draft pick has been traded. That could happen this year."

It could, because the Cleveland Cavaliers, holding the top spot, see the same things as every other team - that you might be able to get a player as good or better than whoever winds up in that top spot as you rattle down the ladder of the first round.

It's not just Noel who has questions trailing him to draft day. There is even some conjecture that Noel's uncertain health might help the Cavs decide to take him — letting him work his way slowly back and ready for next season with the hope that another shot at the top spot in the lottery could net them the real prize, Kansas' incoming freshman Andrew Wiggins.

But McLemore has left some teams shaking their heads with subpar workouts that followed a disappearing act in the NCAA tournament. Up and down the draft there are players nursing injuries, explaining away so-so showings.

"When you look around, look at all the players, there are only 60 picks," Blake said. "At the end of the night I'll be sitting around under the Barclay Center and as soon as that last pick is done I know every team is calling agents to get all those guys in the summer league, some to sign quick contracts. That's how crazy it is, you might be seeking those players as hard as some of the first round picks."

The certainties in that free-agent free for all are not far from the amount of certainty about the top of the draft. Noel, McLemore, Porter, Oladipo, Len and UNLV's Anthony Bennett will make up the top six spots. Then it is fast-rising, small school or injury-rehabbing talent that will put general managers on the edge of their seats — hoping to find as something close to a sure thing as they can, something that they can explain to their own bosses and fan base.

If they are unsure of the positives of their own choice, they can learn from the lesson of the Trail Blazers almost 30 years ago — just hope the one you left on the table isn't Michael Jordan.


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