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Tuesday / February 21.

NBA Scouts: Noel Now the Clear No. 1 Pick

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Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel is now the clear choice to be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft, two veteran NBA scouts told

Earlier this year, scouts had said Noel was part of a group of players who could possibly become No. 1 — along with Indiana’s Cody Zeller, UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad and others.

“Nerlens has been separating himself from the pack,” one scout said. “He has taken his shot-blocking to another level. He’s the best interior defender in the game.”

The 6-foot-10 Noel went for 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in Tuesday’s win over South Carolina in Lexington, Ky.

That was after he posted a season-high 19 points to go with 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in a Feb. 2 win at Texas A&M. Before that, Noel had 12 blocks, seven rebounds and two assists — while managing just two points from the foul line — as Kentucky beat Ole Miss Jan. 29.

“He is improving,” the scout said. “He never takes a bad shot. He shoots a high field-goal percentage. He had a 19-point game the other day. It is all ahead of him because he is so young. He reclassified to come out of high school a year early. Brilliant upside!”

For the season, Noel is averaging 10.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.6 blocks and 2.2 steals.

“Noel [is] No. 1,” a second NBA scout told “He is getting better each week offensively and we already know he dominates the game at the defensive end.”

If Noel goes No. 1 in the June Draft, it would be the second straight year that a Kentucky freshman big man was the top pick.

Anthony Davis went No. 1 to the New Orleans Hornets last year after winning National Player of the Year honors and leading Kentucky to the NCAA championship.

**Noel is also a candidate for National Freshman of the Year. Vote here in this poll.

Photo: USA Today

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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.