You could tell it was over from the moment he collapsed.
As Nerlens Noel writhed on the hardwood floor at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, he probably thought about the rest of his season, in jeopardy of being lost. He probably thought about his teammates, who he knew he'd have to carry through the SEC in order to make a tournament run. He probably thought about the pain shooting up his leg - ACL torn, heart broken.
But there's one thing I'm sure the potential No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft has thought about in the past few days since his season-ending knee injury:
I really hope I don't lose all that money.
And there's the issue.
Nerlens Noel, through no fault of his own, may have just missed out on a major payday - and I'm not talking about those awful candy bars.
The NBA's draft rules state that a player must be one year removed from high school in order to be eligible for entry into the league. That means a player could technically go pro right after high school. There is always Europe (see: Brandon Jennings). But that's such an unconventional method - something most high schoolers wouldn't even think about and something the average 17-year-old or 18-year-old might not feel comfortable doing. Leaving home and living in another country - one which a kid doesn't speak the language - for at least a year? That's tough.
So kids go to college. They don't follow the route of Jennings or Jeremy Tyler.
The U.S. is a country in which both the NCAA and the NBA make unthinkable amounts of dollars on the sport of basketball and yet, an 18-year-old who is qualified to get paid for his services can't do so.
Water, water everywhere, yet not a drop to drink.
Major collegiate injuries haven't affected some, even in recent years. Sam Bradford still went No. 1 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft following a major shoulder injury, which sidelined him for a whole season. Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, played only 11 games as a freshman at Duke and was still selected first in the NBA's 2011 draft. Injuries can be overshadowed. But that's not necessarily the issue. The problem is that this system is putting players in a position potentially to lose even more money than they already have.
Collegiate players are already sacrificing dollars because of an unfair NBA system that won't let freshman into the league and an unrighteous NCAA system that not only makes sure that they don't see a dime, but also penalizes them if they do. But that's a different issue. Yes, players need to see some compensation for the fortunes that get thrown at their universities every season, but they also need to have the right to enter the draft whenever they please.
It's not that Noel couldn't have gotten hurt if he were already in the league. Sure, he could've. But from a personal standpoint, he's financially stable. He's gotten his payday - again, not the candy bar.
Now, Noel waits in limbo. Will he still be a high pick? Surely. A top-five pick? Most likely. But Noel may end up losing money (falling from being the projected No. 1 overall pick to a few picks lower) and if the principles of this rule are on trial, then the result shouldn't matter.
Noel might still wind up becoming a dominant NBA player. That's supremely possible, especially with the way we've seen athletes in other leagues come back from ACL injuries so positively over the past year or so. But the fact that he's currently sitting in a dorm room waiting for the NBA Draft is so wrong, when he could've pocketed his money already.
Fred Katz is an NBA writer for RotoWire. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.