LEXINGTON, Ky. - Canada's Trey Lyles is headed for the NBA as one of a record seven Kentucky players who announced they'll enter the draft.
In a news conference Thursday, the 19-year-old guard from Saskatoon, along with Willie Cauley-Stein, twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and freshman forwards Karl-Anthony Towns all said they will turn pro. Also entering are seven-foot reserve centre Dakari Johnson and backup shooting guard Devin Booker, completing an exodus by the Wildcats' top seven scorers.
"It's been my dream since I was seven years old and now to finally be able to make that move. . . it's crazy to think it's happening now," Lyles said.
The 6-11 Towns could be the first player chosen overall on June 25 and Cauley-Stein and Lyles could soon follow with both projected as possible lottery selections. Booker is also a potential first-rounder, with the rest projected to go in the second.
Lyles, whose favourite team growing up was the Los Angeles Lakers, said he hasn't thought about how high he might go.
"I just know if I'm lucky enough to get drafted I'm going to go out there, I'm going to chase my dreams and I'm going to work harder than anybody else," Lyles said.
Seated before a backdrop with blown-up trading cards of recent Wildcats standouts who went pro, Kentucky's largest group of players explained the decisions that were long expected. Coach John Calipari joined them, after saying this week that five to seven players could enter.
Confirmation was more visual than verbal as Calipari asked those who were leaving to stand up. After they all looked at each other, they stood up to applause in the practice gym before answering questions.
Lyles posted a long note on Twitter, thanking — among others — his Kentucky teammates "for the brotherhood we created, on and off of the court. It was a blessing to be part of such an amazing team, with a bunch of selfless guys that only wanted the best for one another!"
Such leavings have become somewhat expected in Lexington in a 'one-and-done' environment where players and the program succeed despite single-season stays. Calipari has developed 19 NBA draft picks, including 15 first-round selections and two No. 1 overall picks.
In 2012, five Kentucky underclassmen plus senior Darius Miller were selected following the school's eighth national championship. This year's tall, talented squad made a determined run at history with a school-record 38-game winning streak that kept them atop the rankings all season. They were the prohibitive favourites to win title No. 9 and become the first unbeaten champions since Indiana in 1976.
The latter two quests came to a sudden halt with Saturday night's 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
That stunning loss immediately raised the question of how many Wildcats would depart after a season that might not be topped. After all, many of them surprised Calipari and others last spring by deciding to return for second and even third seasons in an effort to win a championship and improve their draft stock.
The gamble appears to have worked out for players such as Cauley-Stein, who chose to return for his junior season after missing last year's title game with an ankle injury sustained in the NCAA Tournament. The quick, agile shot-blocking threat was a national player of the year finalist this past season and now stands to make millions of dollars by developing into a possible lottery pick along with Towns.
"This was a decision that had to be made, and now is the time to go," Cauley-Stein said.
Though the Harrisons improved on the court, it remains to be seen whether their draft stock increased. Andrew is projected as a late first-rounder at best, with brother Aaron expected to go in the second round.
While Kentucky's roster will get a major makeover next season, the outlook seems bright with the return of 5-9 guard Tyler Ulis, 6-9 forward Marcus Lee and 6-7 forward Alex Poythress, who's recovering from a season-ending ACL tear last December.
Kentucky has also recruited 6-3 guard Isaiah Briscoe, 6-11 forward Skal Labissiere and 6-5 guard Charles Matthews, all considered top players.
That means Kentucky could be right back here next spring.
— With files from The Canadian Press.