JON KRAWCZYNSKI,AP Basketball Writer
The Cleveland Cavaliers are on top of the NBA draft yet again, only this time there is no LeBron James waiting to save them. There may not even be a Kyrie Irving.
The first big NBA draft question was answered Tuesday night when the Cavaliers won the lottery for the second time in three years. But there are still plenty of questions left with a draft that many talent evaluators believe lacks the star power of previous years. And they start right at the top.
There is no consensus No. 1 selection. Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel may come the closest, but he is recovering from a torn ACL that will likely keep him out until at least December. Kansas guard Ben McLemore, Indiana guard Victor Oladipo and Georgetown forward Otto Porter also are considered some of the top players in the draft.
“I think it’s a balanced draft,” new Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said. “You don’t have an Alonzo Mourning, a Patrick Ewing, a guy like Derrick Rose, Shaquille O’Neal. You don’t have that one player that might single-handedly change the face of the franchise. It’s going to be a draft where you might see a player at taken at 12 that some other team might take at No. 6.”
Observations like that one are common, leading some to label the draft weak. Saunders is among several executives and talent evaluators who disagree with that characterization, instead taking encouragement from the overall depth.
“There isn’t a player that has wowed or completely dominated college or international ball to create that buzz or whatever,” said Ryan Blake, the NBA’s senior director of scouting operations. “We have a bucket load of really good players that are going to make an impact immediately.”
Noel is the wild card that could shape the rest of the draft. The 6-foot-10 center from Kentucky was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country, but he tore the ACL in his left knee Feb. 12, giving him just over half of a season of college experience before coming to the pros. He hopes to make his NBA debut sometime in December, but some teams could be concerned after watching Rose sit out the entire season with the same injury.
“We haven’t seen him in three or four months and we’re not going to see him in another three or four months,” Blake said. “That can be disturbing.”
The Cavs certainly could use a young big man to bring into a promising core that includes Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson. Getting a natural shot-blocker and gifted rebounder like Noel could round out that group very nicely. A knock-down shooter like McLemore or a versatile forward like Porter would also fill some needs for a team that is desperate to get back into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
The Orlando Magic sit in the No. 2 spot, still in full-on rebuilding mode after trading Dwight Howard to the Lakers before last season. If the Cavs go in another direction, the Magic could grab Noel to put alongside young center Nikola Vucevic for an imposing new-age frontcourt.
“They say this draft isn’t running over with great talent, but believe me, there will be eight or 10 players from the draft, you’ll look back and say they had really good careers,” Magic senior vice president Pat Williams said after losing the No. 1 spot to the Cavaliers in the lottery. “We’re very pleased. Obviously, we came here to win it, because we have a history and wanted to keep it going. But, everybody is very pleased with the second pick.”
And just because this class is lacking a star who became a household name last season in the NCAA tournament doesn’t mean there isn’t one to be found. Last year at this time few knew much about a muscular point guard out of Weber State named Damian Lillard. The 6-foot-3 Lillard played four years in college, which has become more of a liability than an asset for players at the top of the draft these days.
The Portland Trail Blazers grabbed him with the sixth overall pick, and he wound up as the unanimous rookie of the year and a player heralded as a cornerstone for the franchise moving forward.
“I don’t think anybody expected when Portland was picking at six last year that they’d have the unanimous rookie of the year,” said Saunders, whose Timberwolves have the ninth overall choice.
Teams looking to add big men will find plenty in this draft, including Noel, Indiana’s Cody Zeller, Maryland’s Alex Len, Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk, Louisville’s Gorqui Dieng and Pitt’s Steven Adams. And as the draft moves on into the late first round, promising prospects like Michigan’s Tim Hardaway, Jr., Miami’s Shane Larkin and Russia’s Sergey Karasev are there for the taking.
“Some teams want to hit that home run,” Blake said. “They’re going to take a chance. But no matter what you get in this deep draft, you’re going to have guys that come in and can be a 10-point, 10-rebound guys for 10 years.”
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