Cautious Magic won't rule out Noel

Former Kentucky center was injured late last season

Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan & head coach Jacque Vaughn talk Magic offseason.

Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan has not taken a risk to acquire players with injury histories, such as Andrew Bynum and Jared Sullinger, but don't automatically cross off the name of Nerlens Noel.

Noel is recovering from surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee, but is still listed atop several mock drafts.

If the Magic are satisfied after exhaustive research, they wouldn't be afraid to take the former Kentucky star center with their lottery pick, according to a source with knowledge of the Magic's thinking.

Whether they feel Noel is as NBA-ready as, say, Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore, is another question.

When I watch the pre-injury Noel, I see a little of young Dwight Howard in his game.

He's a skinny 19-year-old who can dominate the game defensively, but he's a work in progress offensively.

That was the same scouting report we heard on Dwight when he was coming out of high school.

If it weren't for the knee, Noel would be the top pick, hands down. Any team would have his name already printed on a jersey if the ping-pong balls bounced their way.

Pairing Noel's defense and shot-blocking with Nik Vucevic's offense and rebounding is a tantalizing scenario for rebuilding Orlando.

Factor in another lottery pick in a potent 2014 class along with Noel, and the Magic might be back in the playoffs sooner than expected if they can land a star free agent or two.

But can the Magic afford to take Noel, gambling that he'll return to form?

Hennigan backed off Bynum in a possible Howard deal. He was proved correct as Bynum missed the entire season for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Hennigan had reservations about Sullinger in last season's draft, selecting Andrew Nicholson instead. Sullinger, taken by the Boston Celtics, had season-ending back surgery in February.

High-level athletes have recovered from ACL injuries to never miss a beat. And the 6-foot-11, 215-pound Noel would have all next season to rebuild his knee and gain weight.

Noel was injured Feb. 12 against Florida in Gainesville and had surgery exactly a month later. The operation was performed by James Andrews, the doctor to the stars.

By virtue of owning the NBA's worst record, the Magic can't fall farther than No. 4 in the draft. If Noel is there at No. 4, taking him would sound more plausible, given this ordinary draft class. But can they do it at No. 1?

By the June 27 draft, it will only have been 3 ½ months since Noel had surgery.

The Portland Trail Blazers picked injury plagued center Greg Oden over forward Kevin Durant in 2007. That decision set back the Blazers for years and accelerated the future for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who selected Durant at No. 2.

Too bad this wasn't the summer of 2014 for the Magic. Experts say this draft lacks a superstar, but next year's class offers Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

The "safer" picks for Orlando include McLemore, shooting guard Victor Oladipo (Indiana), center Cody Zeller and point guard Trey Burke (Michigan).

Hennigan would be taking his first significant gamble by picking Noel. You can bet on this: The Magic will know as much about Nerlens Noel's knee as his surgeon after doing their homework.

Magic player reviews

Here's my quick take on some of the club's young guys:

Nik Vucevic: I'd drop Vooch into famed Rucker Park for the summer to toughen him up defensively. He's laid-back and grew up overseas playing with European finesse. Magic need to play more through the promising center.

Maurice Harkless: He's 19, dynamic and needs work offensively. The only thing that could hold back Moe is if he thinks he has all the answers. If he turned into Tayshaun Prince, the Magic would be tickled.

Tobias Harris: He's versatile and skilled even if he forces some shots. Harris shouldn't beat out Glen Davis unless he starts playing defense like Big Baby.

Andrew Nicholson: Has a knack for scoring in the post, but struggled defensively. Not a high ceiling.

Here's the pick!

The NBA playoffs begin today -- and never end.

My pick is the Oklahoma City Thunder…to win the coveted Runner-up Trophy.*

*If for any reason the Miami Heat cannot fulfill their duties as NBA champions, the Thunder will assume their obligations.

Can you imagine winning 60 games as the Thunder did and it's only good for the silver medal --- again?

Miami beat them in the Finals last season -- and the Heat will repeat the scenario. The Thunder are a very good team in any other space-time continuum --- just not a great team for the ages like the Heat.

The Heat vs. Bucks is the lone dud of the first-round match-ups.

How much intrigue is there? Dwight is on the spot and the Lakers are underdogs. And every team knows their Achilles' heel.

This 'n' That

The Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavs and Philadelphia 76ers are looking for coaches -- three more possibilities for former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. I'm told that Van Gundy has no interest in those openings at this time. More jobs could open after the playoffs end, however … Van Gundy is conducting a coaching clinic in Montreal for the Quebec Basketball Federation this weekend at the request of Pascal Jobin, who played for Stan at UMass Lowell… The Magic should listen to offers from teams interested in their lottery pick if trading it translates into more assets, such as an unprotected for 2014. Makes sense in a ho-hum draft where the projected top pick has a torn ACL. "I don't think we won't select anyone," GM Rob Hennigan said. "We'll have our research done and we'll have someone who we think makes sense for us."

bschmitz@tribune.com.

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