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.
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.