GARY GRAVES,AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel will enter the NBA draft as he continues recovering from a torn ACL.
The 6-foot-10 freshman is projected to be a lottery pick despite sustaining his season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12. He led the nation with 4.4 blocks per game, and averaged 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds.
Noel also had 50 steals for Kentucky (21-12), earning Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year honors, along with first team all-conference and freshman team selections.
Noel said in statement released by the university that he’s loved his time with the Wildcats but feels he’s “ready to take the next step to the NBA.”
Considered the nation’s top recruit last year, Noel was often compared to Kentucky All-American Anthony Davis, now in the NBA after leading the Wildcats to a national championship as a freshman.
“I’ve learned so much here at UK and am thankful for Coach (John) Calipari, the staff and my teammates for all of their support,” Noel said. “I especially appreciate the Big Blue Nation and all of the support, prayers and well-wishes I’ve received from them during my rehab and decision-making process. I’ll always be a Wildcat!”
Noel joins Wildcats guard Archie Goodwin in the NBA draft. The two were part of another much-heralded recruiting class that included forward Alex Poythress and 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, but Noel was the only player that consistently lived up to the high expectations for freshmen.
On a Kentucky squad that lacked intensity during parts of a disappointing season by Wildcats’ standards, Noel was often their most active player on the floor. Calipari praised that effort during the season and even after the center made the widely-expected decision to leave for the pros.
“I support Nerlens’ decision to enter his name in the draft and am excited for him and his future,” Calipari said in a statement. “The hard work and will to win he showed on the floor this year and the dedication and attitude he has shown in his rehab will only be a reward for him and whatever team drafts him in June.”
Despite Noel’s athleticism and energy that teammates fed off of after a block or timely steal, Kentucky struggled even when he was healthy. Kentucky’s chances of earning an at-large NCAA tournament bid were iffy even with Noel, and its prospects disintegrated after the devastating knee injury at Florida.
The Wildcats went 4-5 without Noel, even though Cauley-Stein showed signs of improvement in Noel’s place, and quality late-season wins over Florida and Missouri. They not only missed the NCAA tournament but lost a first-round NIT game at Robert Morris.
Poythress and Cauley-Stein, considered potential first-round draft picks as well, have decided to return for their sophomore seasons. They will be expected next year to lead what’s been called the school’s best recruiting class ever, featuring twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
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