LEXINGTON — If you equate playing basketball at the University of Kentucky in dog years — meaning one year at UK can feel like seven — then it’s not so far fetched to believe Julius Randle when he says he’ll miss the University of Kentucky dearly, even while announcing Tuesday that he’s leaving UK after one season for the NBA Draft.
“I’m definitely going to miss it,” said the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle of his lone year with the Wildcats. “Kentucky will always have a special place in my heart. To all the Kentucky fans, I really want to thank you for what you all have done for me this year.”
Randle’s announcement was a foregone conclusion. He led the Wildcats to within one game of the national championship, averaging 15 points and 10.4 rebounds along the way — team highs in both departments. No one disputes Randle could have been a 25-point, 15-rebound guy here if he wasn’t such a good guy, to put it bluntly.
If he wasn’t so unselfish, in other words.
It will be stunning if Randle lasts beyond the first half dozen picks when the NBA Draft is held June 26.
“I truly believe that Julius will be an even better pro than a college player,” said UK coach John Calipari Tuesday, via twitter, undoubtably referring to the fact that Randle was double and triple teamed most of his season with Kentucky. “He was Shaq’d (Shaquille O’Neal) all year, in every way. I really appreciate all he did for this program, and how he represented all of us throughout the entire year. I cannot wait to watch him shine at the next level.”
Randle’s announcement, in front of family, teammates and media, was typical of the class Randle has shown since he stepped foot on campus last summer.
“I’ve been blessed and fortunate to be put in a position to have decisions,” Randle said in an opening statement. “The big decision for me is whether to declare for the NBA Draft or not.
“After talking with my family, and a lot of prayer, I’m deciding to declare for the NBA Draft.”
Randle said he’s matured significantly this season with the Wildcats.
“I came here to win a national championship, and I came here to grow up and mature on and off the court,” he said. “I know we came one game short of winning a national championship, but everything we went through this year is just an experience I’ll never forget. That alone was enough. That kept me at peace to leave.”
Randle was candid when asked why not come back for one more chance at a title with Kentucky.
“This was more about me personally,” Randle said of his decision, not the season. “Everybody’s goal is to win a national championship, but this decision was about me personally, what I felt was best for me to grow on and off the court. There’s no better time for me to achieve my dream than now.”
When Randle was asked if anything surprised him about playing basketball at UK, he suggested that the experience was even tougher than he expected.
“I would say my one year here was fantastic because Coach Cal goes into your home when he recruits you and he says, ‘It’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done ... you’re going to work the hardest you ever did,’” Randle said. “You say OK, but you may not believe it. But once you’re in the fire, what he said is true. And I think that’s really grown me as a person, even more than as a basketball player. Because I’ve learned how to deal with things, and I can apply it to life as well.”
Kentucky’s post-season run no doubt added to the peace Randle feels, despite the national title loss to Connecticut, just outside Randle’s hometown of Dallas.
“Just all the adversity we went through all year, and to finally have an opportunity to play for a national championship, and to see how we came together during the post-season run ... it’s just something I’ll never forget,” he said again. “I’ll grow old one day, and be able to tell my children and grandchildren about something that I did when I was 19-years-old. It’ll always be a memory for me.”
Randle’s mother, Carolyn Kyles, was on hand for Tuesday’s announcement and suggested that her son’s decision was a difficult one. Kyles said the UK fan base and coaching staff made that so.
“There’s nothing like playing for Kentucky,” Kyles said. “This place is amazing. The fans are amazing, and so is the coaching staff. So it wasn’t a decision that he made overnight. We prayed about it and talked about it.”
Randle said he’s dreamed of this day all his life, and he means that pretty much literally.
When asked when the NBA draft dream was born, to so speak, Randle said: “I don’t know an exact age, but probably when I started playing basketball, when I was 3 or 4 years old. I grew up watching NBA guys, and it’s just always where I wanted to be.”
“It’s surreal,” Kyles said of Tuesday’s announcement. “It’s like I close my eyes, and he was at my side, and now I’m looking up at him, and he’s going to be one of those players on TV. I’m so proud of Julius.”
Randle said he’s certain Kentucky basketball will get along just fine without him.
When asked what advice he would give next season’s Wildcats, Randle said he would tell them to think team first, and don’t listen to outside noise.
“I think that’s why I was able to deal with the criticism myself, because I never really fed into it or read it,” Randle said. “I just tried to stay in my own little circle, or little bubble, and focus on the team. That was all I cared about. As long as you’re invested in the team, and that’s your total focus, invested in being a student-athlete, then you really won’t waiver too much from criticism or expectations.”
Randle said he has not yet hired an agent.