Nick Richards’ first season as a Kentucky basketball player didn’t go as hoped.
The 7-footer started every game for the Wildcats, but his play was uneven throughout the first part of UK’s campaign and nearly non-existent toward the end.
In the Cats’ final 10 games of the season, Richards played double-digit minutes just once. He scored more than two points in none of those 10 games.
His high school coach, Mike Rice — the former head coach at Rutgers — watched Richards struggle, but he took some positivity from the process.
“A tremendous learning experience,” Rice, coaching an Under Armour-affiliated team here this weekend, told the Herald-Leader. “If you have some doubt and some weaknesses, that’s going to be exploited at the highest level. And he’ll get through that. He’ll mature. He’ll mature physically. He’ll mature mentally. And, again, it’s about instincts. And Nick’s instincts — when I first got there his sophomore year of high school, to now — are incredible. And so they’ll just continue to develop and build.
“Sometimes, not having an easy path is the best thing for young basketball players. Because they’ve gotten punched, and now they’ve got back up, dusted themselves off, and they’re going to work harder and understand how hard it is to be successful. And I think Nick’s one of those guys who’s not going to be afraid to put the work in.”
That’s a big part of the reason John Calipari never gave up on him.
A major reason Calipari kept him in the starting lineup was because he continued to put forth the effort in practice. As his in-game struggles deepened, those close to the program have said, Richards never stopped trying to get better.
There was frustration, but he never gave up.
Rice wasn’t surprised by that. He also wanted UK fans to remember that Richards has been playing basketball for only four or five years. The native of Jamaica didn’t play the game in his home country, only picking it up when he moved to New York just before entering high school.
He made strides from there, but those gains came against high school competition. It should have been expected that he would get knocked down a peg or two when putting his game up against college competitors.
“It’s damn near impossible,” Rice said. “Everything they do is under a microscope, and Nick is still developing those instincts.”
The coach waved his hand around at his current group of recruits, a team that includes top-10 national prospects Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine, as well as a handful of other players who will soon play for major colleges.
“These guys have been playing since they were in the third grade. Organized leagues and playing games,” he said. “Nick never had that.”
Richards does now have one more year of experience on the court, against a more talented group of opponents. He also has the support of his head coach.
UK’s final game of the season — that NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas State — began pretty much the same way as many of Richards’ previous outings. He started the game, made some mistakes early on, and was benched in favor of other frontcourt players.
On that night, Richards got another chance in the second half. On that night, he made some key plays down the stretch to help keep the Cats in it. When Calipari took him out toward the end, the UK coach walked over to the bench, where Richards had taken a seat, and planted a kiss on his forehead.
Calipari hadn’t given up on him. Rice says UK fans shouldn’t either.
“Whenever I text him I just say, ‘Breathe and work hard, and you’re going to make it.’ Because his attitude and everything else is just spectacular,” he said. “Nick, he’s unbelievable. He’s unbelievable.”