Former Kentucky standout Nerlens Noel voiced confidence Thursday that he'll return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament better than ever.
Speaking to reporters at the NBA Combine in Chicago, Noel said of his rehab, "It's been good from week one. I'm 100 percent confident, not just getting back to what I was, but stronger. Going through this time not playing basketball, I'll just be working on things I need to polish. It will improve me in the long run."
Noel, who was one of the nation's leaders in blocks and steals, tore his left ACL in a game at Florida in February. The injury ended his season and effectively killed Kentucky's chances of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
His 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 day I heard what the injury was — an ACL — was the only day I felt sorry for myself," Noel said. "Every day since then I've devoted to my rehab."
Noel said he has progressed to the point of shooting free throws. He's also exercising on machines, but not running yet.
"I think I'm at a good point," he said. "Obviously I can't do too much right now, but when I come back I'll be able to knock down that 15-footer and take my game to another level."
Noel defended Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, who is returning from a torn ACL. Rose chose not to play late this season despite getting medical clearance.
"It's an injury you have to be mindful of; you have to be careful with it," Noel said. "With Derrick Rose, he had to be careful with it. This is a sport of slashing and explosiveness. You have to be mentally ready for that.
"As much as you want to be back, you also want to be playing as long as you can in the NBA. You have to build back up as far as you can. Mental is a big part of it; I've already seen that."
Noel continues to be projected as a possible No. 1 overall selection in this year's draft despite the injury.
"I'm not surprised," he said. "I've got the talent and I'm going to do things the best that I can. I definitely think this will make me a better player, having gone through this. I'm working on my jumper and putting on good weight."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.