LOS ANGELES &

UCLA star freshman center Kevin Love began a defection of Bruins on Thursday when he announced he is making himself available for the NBA draft.




"I'm in the right spot to take my game to the next level," Love said in a news conference at UCLA.




The Pacific 10 Conference player of the year and first-team All-American called his time at UCLA the best year of his life. "It has truly been special," he said.




An hour after Love's announcement, sophomore guard Russell Westbrook also declared himself available for the June 26 draft.




Like Love, Westbrook left himself some wiggle room to return by also declining to retain an agent. After a pre-draft camp in Orlando, Fla., in late May and individual workouts, players can opt to withdraw their draft eligibility by June 16.




"It's all based on where I'm getting projected," Westbrook said. "If I'm top 20, I might not be coming back. But if the number goes `higher~, I may come back to school."




Love said he will continue taking classes at UCLA. He said he consulted John Wooden in making his decision, and added that he wants to take after UCLA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Jackie Robinson, and leave a legacy both on the court and off.




Love's departure &

announced a week after USC's O.J. Mayo, announced his NBA intentions &

could be part of a wider exodus from Pauley Pavilion.




Westbrook leaves after averaging 12.7 points, 4.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds a game for the Bruins this season. He said he envisions himself as an NBA point guard, and Coach Ben Howland said he improved more in one season than any player he has ever coached.




"I just have to keep shooting, keep working, get as many shots as possible," Westbrook said.




Junior forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute delayed a scheduled news conference appearance with Westbrook and is expected to have a final decision on his future by the weekend, a UCLA men's basketball spokesman said.




Forward-center Alfred Aboya, guard-forward Josh Shipp and guard Darren Collison are also weighing their options. Collison's mother, June, said her son "has 10 more days to make a decision, and, knowing Darren, that's what he'll do: take all 10 days. He's very methodical in his decision making. It doesn't matter who stays or goes. He'll make his own decision."




Howland, who attended Love's news conference with Love's father, Stan, said Kevin never would have gone to UCLA if the NBA hadn't barred players from signing until one year after their high school class graduated.




"I'm not complaining about the problem of guys that are good enough to leave early, it just makes it difficult to plan for the future," Howland said.




He added, sarcastically: "I'm sure our opponents will be understanding."




Love explained his success in the second half of the season and the NCAA tournament clinched his season-long interest in "leaning toward leaving . ... I just felt like I had gotten better and better."




In declining to immediately hire an agent, Love considered the cautionary tale of Kansas' Brandon Rush. Howland has mentioned Rush to his players; he first declared for the NBA draft, but didn't hire an agent, then blew out his knee while working out pre-draft and was able to come back midseason this year for the NCAA-champion Jayhawks.




"I got great advice from Coach Howland: Be careful, stay eligible, and we'll see what happens in the next couple months," Love said.




Love led the Bruins in scoring (17.5) and rebounding (10.6). The Bruins advanced to their third consecutive Final Four, losing to national runner-up Memphis.




He returned home to Lake Oswego, Ore., last week to discuss his future with his family. Stan Love played four years in the NBA.




"His dream has been since 5 years old to be in the NBA," Stan Love said. "If you can get a shot at it and attain it, my advice was to try to live your dreams."




Kevin Love said the Bruins' uncompleted NCAA journey was considered in his final decision.




"We made it very deep into the tournament, we did a great job, but if something were to happen, it makes me a little hungry to come back and make it happen," Love said. "But right now I'm declared for the NBA draft."




(Optional add end)




He said he'd ultimately like to return to UCLA to attain a degree and "put a smile on my mother's face."




Last week, Howland said his research indicated Love could be taken as high as fourth in the draft and most pre-draft predictions have Love being taken between No. 5 and No. 12.




"It really is hard to lose a guy after one year, it's a rarity," Howland said.




Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo left Westwood early the last two years, but not after their first year.




He said the defection in 2004 of freshman Trevor Ariza, now with the Lakers, "was not a great decision from a standpoint that he went late second round. He made it, thank goodness, but when you leave early you want to be a first-rounder.




"Bottom line, ... I think Kevin benefited from this year at UCLA, which is really going to help him as we move forward."