Kentucky freshman Julius Randle to enter NBA draft

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky forward Julius Randle will leave after one season to enter 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-America second 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 than now,” Randle said at a news conference attended by his mother, Carolyn Kyles, and teammates Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.

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, with Kentucky’s fan base hoping he wouldn’t become the latest of the program’s “one and done” players.

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 coach John Calipari as the “alpha beast” of this talented group, which faced high expectations of winning the Wildcats’ ninth title and possibly going unbeaten.

The Wildcats came close to the first goal, overcoming 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.

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.

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