Nerlens Noel's knee injury cost him much more than a chance to play in the NCAA tournament in his first and only season at Kentucky.
The star forward/center, who tore the ACL in his left knee during a game against Florida in February, might have been the top pick in last month's NBA draft had he been healthy. Because he dropped to sixth overall, he missed out on millions of dollars and the chance to join the exclusive club of top overall picks.
Noel hasn't forgotten that five teams snubbed him, and he says neither will anyone who watches him play next year. The 19-year-old has said he wants to wear jersey No. 5 for the Philadelphia 76ers as a reminder of the number of teams that passed over him.
Bitter? Perhaps. But at least Noel is driven, unlike a former 76ers big man who couldn't seem to motivate himself to get back on the court.
And for 76ers fans who saw their team trade an All-Star point guard to get Noel, the youngster's drive must be encouraging.
The unique combination of vast uncertainty and cautious optimism that 76ers fans felt on draft night is a feeling shared by San Francisco 49ers fans, whose team selected Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round of this year's NFL draft. Lattimore was a Heisman candidate and possible first-round pick before he tore three knee ligaments in a game against Tennessee last fall.
Like Noel, Lattimore's stock likely fell because of his injury. So while the 49ers may have gotten Lattimore at a bargain, his future is shrouded in uncertainty. But like Noel, Lattimore seems extra motivated to show that the 49ers made a good choice.
"I want to be an inspiration," Lattimore said in the months leading up to the NFL draft. "To let people know that with hard work and when you trust in God, you can come back from anything and do anything."
Lattimore has done everything right thus far. His surgeon, Dr. James Andrews described the 21-year-old as "superhuman" in his recovery, and Lattimore got a standing ovation from scouts on his pro day.
Perhaps best of all for Lattimore is that he has a willing mentor on the San Francisco 49ers. Frank Gore, one of the most consistent running backs in the league since he was drafted in 2005, tore his ACL in college and recovered to have a stellar NFL career.
Gore is very familiar with Lattimore's position. Gore's backfield teammate at Miami, Willis McGahee, suffered a similar injury to Lattimore. McGahee missed all of his rookie season with the Bills but did not disappoint when he finally hit the field. Both Gore and McGahee have spoken to Lattimore about the process of recovering from the devastating injury.
"[McGahee's] helped me a lot," Lattimore said before the draft. "Guys always bring that up when I come in there and talk to them. Willis came back from it, Frank Gore — (a) bunch of guys. He's a guy that worked hard. That's what I'm going to do, and trust in God. I haven't talked to (McGahee) lately, but I've talked to him a bunch of times. He just tells me, 'Keep grinding. Keep doing what you're doing. Trust in God. You're going to be fine. You'll come back from it.'"
It's not as easy to find a comparison for Noel -- not too many college basketball players have torn their ACLs and gone on to be high first-round picks. But there are reasons for the 76ers to be confident in their selection. Noel has also worked with Andrews, the renowned doctor who performed surgery on Robert Griffin III and Adrian Peterson in recent years along with a host of star athletes over the past few decades. So it's safe to say Noel is in good hands.
Noel hasn't had a major knee injury before, which is comforting for those who worry that he could become the next oft-injured big man.
Lastly, as if Noel needed any more motivation to come back strong from his injury, he was snubbed by five teams in the NBA Draft after he was widely projected to go first overall. He has promised to "make those teams pay."
It should be noted that Noel and Lattimore aren't in exactly the same position. Lattimore had suffered a serious knee injury before. Noel only spent one year in college and was considered more of a raw prospect. Lattimore was selected in the fourth round by a team which made it to the Super Bowl last season, thus there is less pressure on Lattimore to contribute early.
But in signing Noel and Lattimore, both the 76ers and the 49ers cast their lots with prospects that present more of a risk than most. In doing so, the teams not only made a significant gamble, but might also set a precedent for years to come.
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