LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Nerlens Noel continues to take small steps toward returning to the court following surgery on his left knee.
He's shed his crutches and exercising without a knee brace. Though he wouldn't specify want types of exercises, it's all all signs his recovery is ahead of schedule — and each stride is important with the NBA draft looming.
Noel said Tuesday that he's "doing good" after the March 12 operation to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The 6-foot-10 post player expects to return to the court by Christmas, a long road back likely to involve countless hours rehabbing in an NBA facility.
Noel likely won't stay long on teams' draft boards and could become Kentucky's third No. 1 overall pick in four years at the June 27 event in New York.
"That would be a dream come true, to be the first pick in the NBA draft," Noel said. "That's something you dream about when you're a kid. I'd be very blessed to be in that position."
Noel joins Wildcats guard Archie Goodwin in the draft pool, a widely predicted scenario for all of Kentucky's incoming class last year. However, forward Alex Poythress and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein will return for a second season with the Wildcats.
Noel's announcement last week that he was turning pro was basically a foregone conclusion. He led the nation with 4.4 blocks per game this season along with 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals, being named the Southeastern Conference's top rookie and defensive player along with making the all-conference first team.
Despite enjoying his time on campus that included life lessons on and off the court from Wildcats coach John Calipari, Noel said going pro was the best decision for him.
"I sat down with my family, saw the extent of my injury and felt it wasn't going to affect me too much in the draft," Noel said.
That Noel could go No. 1 while slogging through an eight-month recovery process from the devastating injury is an indication of what NBA executives think about his ability and potential. Still, even after he finishes rehab, he will have to get into NBA shape.
The process to get Noel to a point where he could have an impact in NBA game will require patience by whoever drafts him, and by Noel himself. He said he has shown plenty of patience since tearing the ligament in the second half of a 69-52 loss at Florida on Feb. 12.
Noel ran into the padded basket support after blocking Mike Rosario's layup from behind and landing awkwardly, falling to the floor and screaming as he clutched his knee. He hasn't watched replays of the season-ending injury but doesn't regret making the hustle play in a game the Wildcats trailed throughout.
"Regardless of the score, I wasn't going to let him get that easy basket," Noel said. "That's just who I am. I will not be embarrassed in any way, I will not give him the easy basket. I just wanted to keep fighting to give my team the best chance of getting back in fighting position to win that game."
Then again, Noel's competitive fire is why some draft web sites have him atop its mock boards. He hasn't paid attention to the predictions and said he hasn't heard from any NBA teams, focusing mostly on regaining strength in the knee.
As for next month's NBA draft combine in Chicago, Noel expects to be a bystander.
"Going in with the injury I have right now, I'm not sure I'll be able to do too much besides get checked out by the doctors," he said. "Maybe I can shoot some free throws or talk to general managers, but as far as that, I don't think I'll be doing too much."
Despite rebuilding muscle in the leg, Noel acknowledges that the ligament graft will take time to heal and adapt in the leg. His walk is slow but becoming more fluid, progress that pleases his physical therapist.
"I'm taking it slow, with a lot of strength exercise and agility," he said.
One of the toughest things Noel said he has had to do was watch Kentucky stumble to a 4-5 finish.
Of course, the Wildcats struggled with Noel but seemed more out of sync trying to regroup in his absence. Kentucky lost by 30 at Tennessee in its first post-Noel game, dropped consecutive games at Arkansas and Georgia and fell to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament, defeats that ultimately kept the Wildcats from defending their NCAA championship.
The Wildcats also lost at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT as the top overall seed.
"It was real tough" to watch, Noel said, "just watching them play and know that I could have helped them in so many ways. But I'm proud of them guys. They played as hard as they could, they beat two of the best teams in the league (Florida and Missouri) without me. ... Things just didn't roll their way sometimes. But they played their hearts out."