NEW YORK: After the Cavaliers made Anthony Bennett the first Canadian No. 1 overall pick, Nerlens Noel tumbled out of the top five and right into a trade in a surprising start to an unsettled NBA draft.
One of the favorites to be taken first Thursday night, Noel fell to No. 6, where the New Orleans Pelicans took him and then dealt his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers for a package headlined by All-Star guard Jrue Holiday, according to a source familiar with the details.
The Cavaliers started things by passing on centers Noel and Alex Len, who went to the Phoenix Suns at No. 5, in favor of Bennett, the UNLV freshman forward who starred for Canada’s junior national teams and was the Mountain West Conference freshman of the year.
There was suspense right until the end, either because the Cavs were unsure who they wanted or were trying to trade the pick. Most predictions had them taking one of the big men, with Noel largely considered the favorite for the No. 1 choice even after a torn ACL that ended his lone season at Kentucky in February.
“I thought everything was in the air, so I wasn’t thinking I was the No. 1 pick,” Noel said.
The Orlando Magic passed on both of the big men, too, going with Indiana swingman Victor Oladipo with the No. 2 pick.
The Washington Wizards took Otto Porter Jr. with the third pick, keeping the Georgetown star in town.
Bennett, Noel and Len are all coming off injuries and couldn’t even work out for teams.
Len walked up to meet Stern and collect his orange Suns hat, then sat down near the stage to put on the walking boot he needs for the stress fracture of his left ankle that was discovered after Maryland’s season.
Noel finally went to New Orleans with the next pick. He didn’t seem upset at his fall down the draft board, hugging his mother and shaking hands with Kentucky coach John Calipari.
It was a good start to the night for the Hoosiers, with Cody Zeller going two places after Oladipo to the Charlotte Bobcats.
Kansas guard Ben McLemore, another player who was considered a potential top-three pick, also dropped, going seventh to the Sacramento Kings.
Hosting the draft at Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets made the biggest news. A source confirmed a Yahoo Sports report that the Nets and Celtics were working on a trade that would bring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn.
ESPN reported earlier Thursday that Dwight Howard was unlikely to return to the Los Angeles Lakers when he becomes a free agent next month.
The guys coming into the league were glad for the attention they did finally get once their names were called.
“It’s like a weight vest you took off after running five miles,” Oladipo said. “It’s relaxing, man. But at the same time, you know it’s just getting started.”
National player of the year Trey Burke of Michigan also was traded, the Minnesota Timberwolves sending his rights to the Utah Jazz for the 14th and 21st picks, according to a source.
Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum rounded out the top 10 by going to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Other players couldn’t get too excited about their new surroundings, because they changed quickly.
The flurry of trades wasn’t surprising with so much uncertainty surrounding this class and so much hope in other areas. Teams such as the Rockets, Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks already have an eye on Howard’s future, needing to have necessary salary cap space to offer a maximum contract that could lure him away from the Lakers.
The 2014 class — which could be topped by a second consecutive Canadian in incoming Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins — will be higher regarded than this one, with James perhaps heading the available free agents to follow.