GARY B. GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky forward Julius Randle took a lot of time and talked to a lot of people before deciding to leave after one season for the NBA draft, where he is expected to be among the top five selections.
With five days left before the deadline for underclassmen to declare, the 6-foot-9 Dallas native announced the decision many expected even before he arrived as part of Kentucky’s best recruiting class ever. Projected as a lottery pick from the outset, Randle solidified his draft stock by leading Kentucky (29-11) to the NCAA final behind a string of double-doubles despite being double- and triple-teamed.
Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds and was voted to The Associated Press’ All-American third team. With Tuesday’s announcement, he joins guard James Young, who said last week that he would enter the June 26 draft.
“Kentucky will always have a special place in my heart, but growing up as a kid, there’s always been my dream to play in the NBA, and there’s no better opportunity for me to achieve that goal than now,” Randle said at a news conference attended by his mother, Carolyn Kyles, and teammates Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, who rode in on a scooter.
Decisions remain for three more freshmen — twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison and center Dakari Johnson — along with sophomore forward Poythress, who didn’t talk about his future Tuesday. But Randle’s announcement was the most anticipated, even though Kentucky’s fan base was resigned to him becoming the latest of the program’s “one and done” players.
Randle’s steady low-post play led to positive feedback from league executives about his NBA potential. After spending the past couple of weeks talking with his family, Kentucky coach John Calipari — who didn’t attend the news conference — teammates and others, Randle made the decision many expected. His next step is hiring an agent.
“It wasn’t something that we said we were going to do overnight,” Kyles said of the decision-making process. “We prayed about it and talked about it for a while and decided this is the best decision for him. …
“It was important to know their feedback, if they thought he was ready to go out there and contribute to a team. The positive feedback, there was enough of it coming from coach Cal that we felt this was the right thing to do.”
Added Randle’s mentor, Jeff Webster, “I just wanted to hear him say it, that this is what he wanted to do.”
Considered the best player of Kentucky’s much-heralded eight-man recruiting class featuring six high school All-Americans, the 250-pound Randle was initially described by Calipari as the “alpha beast” of this talented group.
The Wildcats overcame a stretch-run slump to reach the NCAA championship game before they lost 60-54 to Connecticut. Randle had 10 points, six rebounds and four assists in the final, but the Huskies’ defense kept him from being a threat in the paint.
The left-handed freshman led the Wildcats in rebounding and scoring and posted a nation-leading 24 double-doubles in spite of opponents’ work in limiting his options near the basket.
Calipari said in a statement that Randle “was Shaq’d all year — in every way,” referring to defenses applied to former NBA great Shaquille O’Neal. “I cannot wait to watch him shine at the next level.”
Randle scored nearly half of his 599 points from the foul line, as he often had to muscle his way through double teams. He also provided one of Kentucky’s season highlights in late February with a game-winning putback in the final seconds of a 77-76 overtime victory over LSU, one of many hard-fought games for a gifted yet inexperienced Wildcats squad that needed all season to come together.
Through it all Randle remained a steady force with physical play that reinforced speculation that he would be among the top players chosen in June.
“I came here to win a national championship. I came here to mature on and off the court, and I did that,” Randle said. “I came (up) one game short of winning a national championship, we did as a team. But everything we went through this year was just an experience I’ll never forget. That alone kept me at peace.”
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