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Noel keeping focus on rehab even after draft decision

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Nerlens Noel is hoping to become UK's third No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick in four years. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Nerlens Noel is hoping to become UK's third No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick in four years. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When it comes to the NBA Draft, information is just a few mouse clicks and keyboard strokes away. If Nerlens Noel wanted, he could read detailed scouting reports about himself and find out where countless experts are pegging him in mock drafts.

He isn't having any trouble resisting the urge to look.

"I don't pay attention to those at all," Noel said on Tuesday. "I just stay focused on my physical therapy and make sure I stay focused and keep my mind right."

If he did take a peek, Noel would see that his name has floated back to the top of many a draft board. Though he's not frequenting Draft Express or ESPN for the latest scoop, he acknowledges that the prospect of being taken No. 1 overall has crossed his mind.

"It'd be a dream come true being the first pick in the NBA Draft," Noel said. "That's something you dream about from when you're a kid and I'd be very blessed to be in that position and very appreciative of it."

But barely two months ago, that dream was cast into doubt.

Noel injured his knee racing down the floor to prevent a fast-break layup in a game at Florida on Feb. 12. In an instant, he went from thinking about winning a basketball game to pondering whether playing the sport was even in his future, among countless other things.

"A lot goes through your head," Noel said. "When it first happens to you, you don't know what the injury is. So you don't know if you'll never play basketball again or if you'll be playing a month from now. When I heard what the injury was, I knew no matter what I'd get back on the court as fast as I could and just get back to what I love doing."

Since then, Noel has directed his energy toward that end.

He is at the six-week mark of his recovery process and Noel goes through rehab every day. He reports he is now doing exercises in therapy out of his brace and slowly regaining lost muscle. Noel is shooting for Christmastime as a rough return date, but that's very much a moving target.

"The knee's doing good," Noel said. "I've been working hard in rehab and my physical therapist has been telling me I'm way ahead of schedule and I'm coming along very well."

Seeing his progress, Noel was comfortable making his decision to enter the NBA Draft on April 15.The prospect of playing with a talented incoming class and the simple fact that he has enjoyed his time in Lexington were tempting, but he is happy with his ultimate choice.

"There was a consideration about coming back, but anybody that gets injured you're probably going to have a consideration and just think about it," Noel said. "But I sat there with my family and just saw the extent of my injury and I felt it wasn't going to affect me too much in the draft. So I've definitely been tackling the rehab and my decision was probably the best decision for me I believe."

Though he has opted to move on to the next level and didn't even play a full season of college ball, Noel believes he has benefited greatly from his time at UK. He was projected as a top pick before he became a Wildcat, but Noel sees himself as much better prepared to be successful in the NBA after playing for John Calipari at Kentucky.

"Coach Cal has taught me so much on and off the court: How to be a good person and just really know how to have a good work ethic," Noel said. "He made us love work and just (how) to carry yourself and just a lot of life lessons that any regular coach would not teach you about off the court."

When he went down, Noel's injury sparked a debate about the one-and-done rule and whether players should be allowed to declare for the draft out of high school. He sees all sides of the argument, but isn't entering the conversation. Noel is just glad to be where he is now.

"I loved this year and it was one of the best experiences of my life being here at Kentucky this year," Noel said. "Regardless of if I had to stay three, four years, these are the best times of your life whether it's one or four years."

Similarly, Noel isn't thinking about the play on which he got hurt. A pragmatist might say that Noel would have been better served to let Mike Rosario have a wide-open layup. But even though UK was down double digits at the time, Noel doesn't second-guess his decision to hustle back and block his 106th and final shot of the season in spite of all the pain it ended up causing him.

"Regardless of the score I wasn't going to let him get that easy basket," Noel said. "That's just who I am though. I will not be embarrassed in any type of way. I will not give them an easy basket. I just want to keep fighting and give my team the best chance of getting back in fighting position to win that game."

Based on that attitude, it's easy to see why NBA teams are still so eager to take him.

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