Nerlens Noel revealed Tuesday that he had considered a return to Kentucky for his sophomore season, but the rehabilitation of his surgically-repaired left knee was going so well that entering the NBA Draft was the best choice.
Meeting with the local media for the first time since he injured his knee on Feb. 12 in the second half of the Wildcats' loss at Florida, Noel said he is feeling good about his future.
"The knee is doing good," said Noel, who is six weeks into his rehab and wearing a brace to help him get through his daily exercises. "I have been working hard in rehab. My physical therapist has been telling me I am ahead of schedule and I'm coming along really well.
"(Dr. James Andrews) told me when I had the surgery that it went very well. He's told me to make sure I take things slow and stay focused on physical therapy. That's the key thing."
The 6-foot-10 center from Massachusetts averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and a national-best 4.4 blocked shots per game as a freshman at Kentucky. He played 24 games for the Cats, missing the final nine as UK failed to make the NCAA Tournament field and saw its season end on a sour note in a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris.
"It is hard to be patient, especially during the season," Noel said. "Just seeing my teammates out there playing and wishing I was out there playing with them.
"It was very tough just watching those guys play knowing I could have helped them in so many ways. I'm proud of those guys. They played as hard as they could. They fought; they beat two of the best teams in the league without me. You can't underestimate those guys. Things just didn't roll their way sometimes on the road. I love those guys. They played their hearts out. I'll always be proud of them no matter what."
Noel is still considered by many draft analysts to be a strong candidate for the No. 1 overall pick, which made his return to the Cats extremely unlikely. But he did give it some thought.
Asked why he considered it as an option, Noel said: "The Big Blue Nation. I loved playing here. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Great fans, a great atmosphere, and playing in Rupp Arena felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I will never get to do that again. It was a hard decision. I love the Big Blue Nation, I love Coach Cal."
There was also the lure of playing with UK's latest No. 1 national recruiting class, which could put the Wildcats in a position to be the favorite to win a championship in 2014.
"I played with half of those guys when I was in their class before I was classified up," said Noel, who was originally part of the Class of 2014. "I know how good they are. They are really good. They're really good kids. That would have been a really special team if I had stayed.
"They're going to have a great team next year. Alex (Poythress) and Willie (Cauley-Stein) coming back is going to give them good leadership just like Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb did (in 2012). Those were the key players they needed to win that championship. I feel they will be very good next year."
This year's draft will be held on June 27 in New York City. Noel is among a handful of prospects, including Kansas' Ben McLemore, UNLV's Anthony Bennett, Georgetown's Otto Porter and Michigan's Trey Burke, thought to be in the mix for the top pick.
Noel said he does not pay any attention to the mock draft boards, but conceded "It would be a dream come true being the first pick in the NBA Draft. That's something you dream about when you're a kid. I would be very blessed to be in that position."
Overcoming a major injury early in his career has given Noel a new perspective on the game.
"You can't take it for granted," he said. "You have to cherish the game you love and play. I feel like that's what I did. Things like this happen you're a human being. You're going to get hurt sometimes. You just have to stay focused and be ready to fight and get back to doing what you love."
Noel considered return to Cats
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