Jan 26, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) during the game against the LSU Tigers in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated LSU 75-70. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Should Nerlens Noel Pass up the NBA and Return to Kentucky?

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Nerlens Noel’s NBA draft stock is still in great shape if historical precedent is any indication.

The imposing freshman center is now in the same company as a former Naismith Player of the Year and the fastest rising point guard in the NBA.

For the second time in three seasons and third since the turn of the century, the top NBA draft prospect has gone down for the season with a serious leg or foot injury. Noel tore his ACL in Tuesday’s game against Florida on this fluky sequence and will miss the remainder of the seasonas he recovers.

Feb 9, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) reacts during the game against the Auburn Tigers in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Auburn 72-62. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati star forward Kenyon Martin started the trend of major injuries afflicting top pro prospects. The senior Bearcat broke his leg during the 2000 Conference USA tournament and had to sit out the remainder of the postseason. Duke freshman phenom Kyrie Irving missed 26 games himself  — he would eventually make a triumphant return in the NCAA tournament — as a  result of a mysterious foot injury suffered in an early December game versus Butler.

Both players became the No. 1 pick in June anyway.

One NBA scout tells Busting Brackets Noel, even in the wake of his injury, is still a top-five draft prospect with a physical profile and defensive reputation strong enough to justify a top-three selection. The scout speculates Noel’s condition will, however, reduce the likelihood of the Kentucky frosh becoming the No. 1 pick.

Given modern-day advancements in treating knee ligament injuries, an athlete’s recovery time from an ACL tear typically doesn’t exceed eight months. A similar track would have Noel back just in time for the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, were he to forgo his final three college seasons and enter the draft.

Juggling prudence with projection, Noel’s safest play is to follow in the footsteps of Irving — who did have the benefit of returning to the court post-recovery and proving himself during a few NCAA tournament games — and ride his high-flying reputation in the league. Athletes are returning from ACL injuries quicker than ever before — see Adrian Peterson — without losing a step. At least one general manager picking near the top of the draft won’t let a freak injury steer him away from the player offering the most upside of any in his class.

On top of forfeiting a season’s worth of NBA salary, Noel would also expose himself to the risk of reinjury by returning to college for his sophomore season. That is, reinjury minus the luxury of a healthy rookie contract to soften the blow. Worse yet, if Noel returned to school at anything less than full capacity, he’d be committing career suicide. His draft stock would sink, pro earnings potential would plummet and endorsement opportunity wither away.

In one abridged chapter covering just 24 college games, Nerlens Noel left his mark on Kentucky hoops. For his sake, hopefully it’s the last chapter ever written in Lexington by a player with the potential to author a storybook career.

Should Nerlens Noel return for his sophomore season at Kentucky?

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