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April 22, 2014

Kentucky freshman Randle enters NBA Draft

There was no roundball roundtable, no hoop summit among the Kentucky basketball players pondering their collegiate and professional futures.

And so when Julius Randle announced as expected on Tuesday that he'll enter the NBA Draft after a season with the Wildcats -- the 12th freshman to play a season for John Calipari at Kentucky and jump to the pros -- it was without much input from or insight into his UK teammates.

In other words, don't ask Randle who's leaving with him and who's returning for another go-round. The Cats didn't consult one another on these decisions.

"It was just about… each individual player personally, and what he thought was best for his future," Randle said at a news conference. "Any decision any player made, we were gonna have their back 100 percent, and that's the biggest thing."

Randle joined James Young in deciding to leave for the NBA. Marcus Lee and Willie Cauley-Stein have announced they'll return.

Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress have yet to declare their intentions.

Whatever happens, Randle said, next season's Wildcats will be "amazing."

And regardless of who's back to chase an NCAA title at Kentucky, the current Cats will take with them memories of a season that almost went sour but then turned sweet as UK surged to the NCAA championship game before losing to Connecticut.

"I know I came one game short of winning a national championship -- we did as a team -- but everything we went though this year is just an experience that I'll never forget," Randle said. "That alone was enough, kept me at peace to leave."

Staying was an option, but Randle always seemed destined for a short stop at UK on the way to the NBA. The league is practically in his blood. His mother, Caroline Kyles, said on Tuesday that while the name Julius "seemed perfect" for her son, it was inspired by basketball great Julius Erving. And Randle said he's been dreaming of playing in the NBA since he was "three or four years old."

Still, Randle hasn't rushed into decisions. He has yet to hire an agent, and he spent two weekends at home in Dallas, Kyles said, weighing his options.

"It's an important decision because there's nothing like playing for Kentucky," Kyles said. "This place is amazing, the fans are amazing, the coaching staff is, and so it wasn't something we said we were going to do overnight. We prayed about it and talked about it for a while and decided this was the best decision for him."

In a single season, Randle built a lottery pick's resume.

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a freshman, shooting 50 percent from the floor. He led the nation and set a UK freshman record with 24 double-doubles. In the history of college basketball, only Kansas State's Michael Beasley recorded more double-doubles during a freshman season.

Randle was a third-team All-America selection by The Associated Press and the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He was named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-SEC selection by the league's coaches and media covering the conference.

And yet there's a sense that Randle can do more. He entered the season with an outside shot at being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and though he's still projected as a top-six pick, concerns about his wingspan and questions about his ability to play facing the basket have cooled his stock.

"Coach Cal did a great job of using me in many different ways," Randle said. "It just happened that posting up and a low-post player, that was one of my strengths here and everybody had to sacrifice."

Between now and the June 26 draft, Randle will work with longtime mentor Jeff Webster -- a former Oklahoma star who played 11 NBA games and -- to address some of the questions.

"I've been the guy that's always trained him," Webster said Tuesday. "Kentucky did an outstanding job, but we can kind of get back to some things that I know he needs to correct and fine tune to get ready for the next step."

Those things include Randle's perimeter game and his conditioning, Webster said.

Before that, Randle will finish the semester at UK like the rest of his teammates. When it's over, some will be moving on. Others will stay behind. No matter what next year's team looks like, this season's will give Kentucky "a special place in my heart," Randle said.

"I'll grow old one day and I'll be able to tell my children or grandchildren about something that I did when I was 19 years old," Randle said. "It'll always be a memory for me."

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