Kentucky's Nerlens Noel targeting Christmastime for NBA debut

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 23, 2013 

Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel was all smiles after a dunk and a Kentucky run against Tennessee on Tuesday. Noel finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, and Kentucky won, 75-65. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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In his first meeting with reporters since his season-ending knee injury in February, Nerlens Noel said he considered returning for his sophomore season.

But because he remained projected as one of the first players selected, he found the lure of the NBA irresistible.

"Yeah, there was a consideration of coming back," Noel said Tuesday.

Noel added that he decided to enter this year's NBA Draft after discussing the options with his family.

"(The knee injury) wasn't going to affect me too much in the draft," he said.

Noel tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a game at Florida on Feb. 12. He said he's ahead of schedule in the rehabilitation process. He spoke of Christmas as a target date for his return.

"I love playing here," he said before calling playing for Kentucky "one of the best experiences of my life."

Being a player in Rupp Arena is a "once-in-a-lifetime thing," Noel said. "I'll never get to do that again.

"It was a hard decision. I love the Big Blue. I love Coach Cal (UK Coach John Calipari)."

In addition, Noel noted his familiarity with several of the players making up UK's much ballyhooed freshman class of 2013. "I played with half of those guys when I was in their class," he said in reference to reclassifying as a high school player. "I know how good they are. ...That would have been a real special team if I stayed."

But when asked a few moments later if he preferred a system requiring players to stay in college, say, two or three or four seasons, Noel blurted out, "Nah."

Laughter erupted in the Memorial Coliseum space set up for press conferences.

When it subsided, Noel offered a clarification.

"I mean, I love it here," he said. "It's been one of the best experiences of my life, being here at Kentucky, regardless of if it's (not) three or four years."

Noel's one college season consisted of 24 games. In that time he averaged 10.5 points and a team-high 9.5 rebounds. He also led the Wildcats in blocks (106) and steals (50) despite missing the final nine games.

The injury at Florida abruptly ended Noel's season. He declined to relive the circumstances that led to the injury. "I'm just thinking of moving forward and getting back on the court," he said.

The injury occurred as Noel ran back in transition after a UK turnover to try to prevent a layup by Florida's Mike Rosario. Noel blocked Rosario's layup, but his left knee bent awkwardly as he landed back on the court. He crumpled to the floor and screamed in agony.

The play typified the kind of hustle Calipari had asked for from his team — and did not consistently get — much of the season. It could be argued that Kentucky and Noel won the battle on that particular play, but lost the season-long war. Florida led by 12 with 8:03 remaining in the game.

When asked if, in hindsight, he wished he'd conceded the basket to Rosario, Noel answered quickly.

"No, no way," he said. "We weren't down too much."

UK had trimmed a 19-point second-half deficit to 12 when Noel tore the ACL.

"Regardless of the score, I wasn't going to let him get that easy basket," Noel said. "... I would not be embarrassed in any type of way. ... I just wanted to keep fighting and give my team the best chance of getting back in fighting position to win that game."

Noel, who succeeded at the unenviable task of replacing All-American Anthony Davis, continues to be projected as among the first players taken in this year's NBA Draft. Sportswriter Bob Ryan, who covered the Boston Celtics and/or NBA since the 1960s, all but guaranteed last week that Noel would be the first player selected.

"That's a dream come true," Noel said of becoming the third UK player in the last four drafts to be taken first overall (John Wall in 2010 and Davis in 2012). "That's something you dream about when you're a little kid."

Noel expressed his gratitude for how well Calipari prepares UK players for the future, whether or not that includes an NBA career.

"I don't think there's another person in the country that can prepare us like Coach Cal does," he said. "... This year he taught me so much that I never really even thought I could learn in just a year of college. That's why he is who he is. ...

"He never lied to me. He tells you how it is. I love Coach Cal and I appreciate everything."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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