Noel, Len atop NBA draft full of questions

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Noel, Len atop NBA draft full of questions

NEW YORK -- Nerlens Noel is coming off a major knee injury. Alex Len is in a walking boot.

One of them could be the No. 1 pick Thursday in an NBA draft that appears short on stardom, and neither looks ready to get his career off to a running start.

"This draft is really unpredictable, a lot of guys with injuries and you don't have any, like, LeBron James," Len said Wednesday. "So it's going to be interesting."

Ten years after James climbed on stage to start a draft that goes down as one of the best in recent memory, the No. 1 pick again belongs to Cleveland.

The Cavaliers won't find anyone who can play like James on the court -- if they keep the pick -- and even the climbing the stage part will be a challenge for the big men who opened their college seasons against each other and are competing again now.

Noel tore the ACL in his left knee on Feb. 12, ending his lone season at Kentucky. The 6-foot-11 freshman led the nation in shot blocking and his conference in rebounding, but hasn't been able to show the Cavaliers if his offensive game has grown.

The only basketball work he did during his visit to Cleveland was shooting some free throws. Perhaps the pants he wore with his sports jacket and orange tie were just too tight, but Noel was walking gingerly as he exited a hotel ballroom after meeting with the media Wednesday.

"I wanted to do more. Unfortunately I got hurt, but I mean I definitely felt right before I got injured I was really coming along as a player and just really coming into my own during that part of the season," Noel said. "But like I said, unfortunately I got hurt, so I wasn't able to show as much as I wanted to."

Nor has Len, but that hasn't stopped the 7-1 center from the Ukraine who spent two seasons at Maryland from climbing into the mix at No. 1. His left foot started bothering him around February, and he found out after the season that it was a stress fracture.

He was aware he was projected as a top-10 pick before the draft combine, but may go much higher even though his visits to teams have consisted of nothing more than interviews. He no longer needs crutches but will be in the boot for perhaps two more weeks.

So, with all these injury questions, what about playing it safe and picking a healthy guy?

"I mean, probably a lot of people wish it could be that easy," Kansas guard Ben McLemore said. "But it's a process for the teams, they've got to see what's available and what they really need. And like I said, this draft is up in the air and nobody knows what's going to happen, who's going to get drafted in which order."

Orlando has the No. 2 pick, followed by Washington, Charlotte and Phoenix.

McLemore, Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Georgetown forward Otto Porter and national player of the year Trey Burke of Michigan are among the other players who will hear their names called early at Barclays Center by NBA Commissioner David Stern in his final draft.

It's a class that won't draw any comparisons to the one that James led, which featured future Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, along with NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony among the first five picks.

Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King said a number of teams are trying to trade out of the draft and acquire extra picks for next year, which is expected to be a stronger class. But he doesn't know if there will be enough teams interested in being trade partners to get those deals done.

"There are good players in this draft, but right now, there are not impact players. What I mean by that is that there's no one you look at in this draft that within two years will be an All-Star, say like Kyrie Irving was, players like that," said Minnesota Timberwolves president Flip Saunders, referring to the guard Cleveland took with the No. 1 pick in 2011.

"And so in order for you to move up and dilute your talent pool and your roster, you've got to get an impact-type player, and I just don't believe ... there's good players, probably pretty good players in this league, but are they going to be that impact player who's going to be an All-Star or future Hall of Famer? That's what you don't see. And sometimes that's something you don't see for two or three years in a row."

McLemore has in some ways been hurt by healthy, since by being able to work out he's given teams something to nitpick. Noel and Len have been largely free of criticism while sitting on the sideline.

Instead, Len is hoping his first impression of the season is one that holds up, when he had a career-high 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks against Noel in Maryland's loss to Kentucky, right in the building where they will be Thursday.

"I did well against him. So, it's not up to me, it's up to teams," Len said of a team choosing between the two.

Neither player said he knows what the Cavs will do. There has been speculation they are open to dealing the pick, something teams rarely consider in a year with a clear-cut No. 1.

Noel said he had gotten no sense from the Cavs that they had concern about his knee, which could keep him off the court until early in the regular season. And in a draft full of questions, he believes selecting him is the right answer.

"I'm a good teammate, I definitely love to work," Noel said. "I want to get better. I want to be great, I want to reach my potential, be the best player I can be. I definitely do countless hours in the gym and I'm definitely working to get there."

AP Basketball Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

Charles Barkley: Sixers can be 'really good, really quickly'

Charles Barkley: Sixers can be 'really good, really quickly'

Charles Barkley is jumping on the Sixers bandwagon.

"I think the Sixers gonna get really good, really quickly, but it all depends on (Joel) Embiid," Barkley said. "They're not gonna win a championship the next couple years, but I think they can really become a perrenial playoff team in the next three years."

Sounds good, right? Not so fast. There are a lot of "ifs" according to Barkley. 

Most of those "ifs" ride on the health of center Joel Embiid. If the big man gets healthy, and the Sixers can resolve the "glutton of big guys," Barkley likes the Sixers chances.

"I think the most important thing they need to figure out is if Joel Embiid is going to be healthy. ... I like (Jahlil) Okafor and I like (Nerlens) Noel, but they gotta figure out if Joel Embiid is going to be healthy. 

"I like Ben Simmons, but that team's got a long way to go," Barkley said.

To hear more of Barkley's thoughts on the Sixers' future, watch the full video above. 

 

 

Team USA overpowers Argentina in 1st Olympic exhibition

Team USA overpowers Argentina in 1st Olympic exhibition

LAS VEGAS -- New team. Same old result.

Full of new star power -- and dominant on the inside -- the U.S. men's basketball team opened its bid for a third straight Olympic gold medal Friday night with a 111-74 exhibition romp over Argentina.

A game that was over almost before it began showed the U.S. has to improve its shooting and conditioning. It also showed that there is plenty of talent among a group of players that seem to want to play well for each other and their country despite the absence of Olympic stalwarts Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

"There's a willingness from these guys to work on anything we need and to work hard," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "These are very good guys."

A U.S. team that hasn't lost a game in 10 years had little trouble with Argentina, which some consider a medal contender in Rio. Paul George scored 14 first-half points, Kevin Durant added 12, and the U.S. blew open the game early before an appreciative crowd on the Las Vegas Strip.

Even with Bryant retired and James taking this Olympics off, there was no real talent drop off on a team heavily favored to win gold once again. The depth of the U.S. showed as coach Mike Krzyzewski rotated players in and out, searching for the right combinations on a team with 10 new players from 2012.

"Nothing is for sure," Durant said. "We want to get this gold and right now we have a job to do. We have to prepare the right way."

Count the Argentines among those who were impressed at the first real game for the Olympic team.

"Obviously, they have the best talent and the best size in the world," Argentina's Luis Scola said. "That's a big difference in their favor."

The game was the first of five exhibitions the U.S. will play before traveling to Rio to defend the gold medal. The U.S. team has spent the last week practicing in Las Vegas in preparation for the tour and the games.

There weren't any opening night jitters, though the U.S. shot only 45 percent and missed all but 14 of 41 3-pointers. With DeMarcus Cousins pulling down 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes, the U.S. dominated inside, outrebounding Argentina 53-30.

"The big thing is getting in shape and they are not there where they will be," Krzyzewski said. "But we really have an inside presence on the boards."

For Durant the game was a chance to play with a pair of his new Golden State teammates, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It was also a chance for Durant and Carmelo Anthony -- the only two players from the 2012 team -- to demonstrate that this will be their team in Rio.

Both players cheered from the bench as the minutes were spread around, jumping up to clap for teammates. Every U.S. player got quality time, with Green's 12 minutes the least played by any American.

"We're going to have fun and we're going to enjoy ourselves," Anthony said. "If it's not fun it's not worth it. We're going to enjoy ourselves but at the same time we're going to be focused in trying to get that gold medal."

Durant finished as the game's high scorer with 23 points, while George had 18 and Carmelo Anthony 17. Andres Nocioni had 15 for Argentina, while Manu Ginobili added 11 for Argentina, which lost to the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.

Though at times little defense was played, there was plenty of offense to keep the crowd at the new T-Mobile Arena happy. The teams combined to put up 70 3-point attempts, 41 of them from the U.S.

Oddsmakers had made the U.S. a prohibitive 29.5-point favorite in what at times looked a lot like an NBA All-Star game. But while the U.S. team is loaded with 12 NBA players, the Argentines had only three on their roster and the talent difference showed.

While the team is full of new players, the gold medal run will be the last for Krzyzewski, the national coach for the last decade. His teams have lost only one game during his reign, which will end after the Olympics with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking over.

Manu Ginobili intrigued by coach Brett Brown, Sixers before re-signing with Spurs

Manu Ginobili intrigued by coach Brett Brown, Sixers before re-signing with Spurs

The Spurs have been one of the most consistent NBA teams for nearly 20 years. They have made 19 consecutive postseason trips and won five championships during that span. 

The Sixers, on the other hand, are entering a phase of building a new foundation with a group of young players. They are working to improve upon a 10-win season, let alone making the playoffs.

Yet four-time NBA champion Manu Ginobili saw more than records when weighing his options in free agency. The veteran point guard looked to the Sixers sidelines and was intrigued.

Head coach Brett Brown previously worked in the Spurs basketball operations department and on the coaching staff under Gregg Popovich. He was part of four championship teams in San Antonio. When the Sixers approached Ginobili this offseason, he gave them consideration before returning to the Spurs, where he has spent his entire 14-year career.

“The fact that Philadelphia had a great coach and a person I appreciate so much as Brett Brown, made it more appealing in the case the Spurs didn’t happen,” Ginobili told The Vertical on Thursday. “But the Spurs happened and they always had the priority.”

The Sixers reportedly offered Ginobili, 38, a two-year, partially-guaranteed deal worth around $30 million. The Spurs first offered him a one-year, $3 million contract. Ginobili ended up re-signing with the Spurs for one-year, $14 million. 

“It was not my main option. I never wanted to leave San Antonio,” Ginobili said. “But I had to listen to all the options that are there.”

Ginobili averaged 9.6 points, 3.1 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 19.6 minutes coming off the bench last season. The Sixers are adding veteran leadership, and Ginobili is one of the most experienced in the game. In addition to his reliability at the position, he could have been a mentor to the entire team and worked with Ben Simmons to help hone his point guard skills as the rookie big man plays point-forward. His years of international competition would have gelled with incoming players such as Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Sergio Rodriguez. 

The Sixers signed point guards Jerryd Bayless (three years, $27 million) and Rodriguez (one year, $8 million) this summer. T.J. McConnell and Kendall Marshall still are under contract. Last season's starting point guard Ish Smith signed with the Pistons at the start of free agency.