Nick Richards feels ‘more confident’ in his basketball play
Of the top 20 basketball recruits in the final Rivals.com rankings for the class of 2017, only one will still be playing college basketball next season.
That’ll be Nick Richards, and — this time around — he’s more likely than not to have first dibs on the “5” spot at Kentucky.
“If he doesn’t play, it’s his own fault,” Rivals.com national analyst Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader after breaking down UK’s roster for next season. “He’s going to have multiple opportunities. Now, granted, there’s going to be a lot more expected out of him ... but Cal can’t send him to the bench for 10 minutes at a time, even when he makes bone-headed decisions. He’s going to have a longer leash.”
That’s something Richards didn’t have during his first two seasons as a Wildcat.
John Calipari started the five-star recruit in all 37 of the team’s games as a freshman, but his playing time dwindled as that campaign carried on. Richards played fewer than 10 minutes in nine of the Wildcats’ final 10 games as a freshman, scoring more than two points in none of those contests.
The 6-foot-11 center came into this past season with a self-proclaimed boost in confidence, a promise to no longer let mistakes on the court linger in his mind and affect his play.
That didn’t go quite according to plan either. His playing time actually decreased — as did his point and rebound totals, and his shot attempts — and the confidence problems continued, with missed plays often leading to more missed plays and/or quick hooks from Calipari.
This past season, the UK coach could afford to do it. Graduate transfer Reid Travis brought a wealth of experience from Stanford and a willingness to play physical in the post. When healthy, it was difficult for Calipari to keep Travis off the court.
Next season, Travis won’t be wearing a UK uniform. Fellow frontcourt starter PJ Washington will be gone, too.
Possible graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. is still out there — and UK will be an option — but the Wildcats are not currently seen as favorites to land a commitment from the instant-impact post player.
Right now, it seems the totality of the Cats’ frontcourt will consist of Richards, EJ Montgomery (a versatile forward who’s more comfortable facing the basket), and Nate Sestina (a graduate transfer from Bucknell who — while talented — doesn’t come close to Richards in terms of size, length and athleticism).
“Who’s going to defend down low?” Evans asked. “Who’s going to have the proper weight, strength and size to defend those back-to-the-bucket, low-post guys. I know guys in that mold are kind of outdated anymore, but they’re still so vital to (a college team’s) success. And Nick is the only guy on that roster like that.
“I think confidence was a big factor for him. But now there’s no bench to teach him. It’s 25 minutes of basketball that Cal has to give him. There’s so much versatility and adaptability on that roster at (every other position) … but with Nick Richards, who is it?”
Indeed, if the Cats are to have a long, physical, athletic, shot-blocking big man next season, it almost certainly has to be Richards — and Calipari knows it. Despite a drop in nearly every statistical category from his first season to his second, Richards actually saw a relatively marked increase in blocked shots: 33 in 543 minutes as a freshman, and 47 in 446 minutes as a sophomore.
“I’m excited to continue to coach Nick because I know how special he can be,” Calipari said in a news release this week. “I’ve told him, ‘If you come back, I’m expecting you to be one of the best big men in the country.’ There is no reason he can’t be. … I want him to dominate the game and affect it on every single possession.”
Richards’ potential to do that is what got him the No. 17 overall spot in Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings two years ago. Calipari remembers watching that player in high school and on the highly competitive Nike circuit. So do the recruiting analysts.
But that version of Nick Richards is someone that — other than a few flashes here and there — hasn’t shown up in a Kentucky uniform yet.
“You guys haven’t really seen that guy,” Evans said, along with a reminder of what made Richards such a highly touted prospect. “Nick is a hard-playing, instinctive rim-runner, shot-blocker, rebounder and scorer around the bucket. And he’s actually more skilled than he lets on, once he’s playing off his instincts. But when things kind of bog down and he starts double-thinking himself, that’s when you see hesitancy, and that’s when you’ve seen him get pulled out.”
Of the top 20 guys from those Rivals.com rankings two years ago, only three — Richards, PJ Washington, and UCLA’s Kris Wilkes — returned to college for a second season. Richards is the only one of those players who will be in school for a third year. “Everyone is on a different plot line,” Evans said, noting that he still believes Richards can live up to the pre-college hype ... if he takes advantage of what should be a better opportunity in Year 3.
“That confidence is so vital. I think it’s a very underrated portion of any prospect, especially young kids. And I know Nick is 21, but he’s a kid still. When you get a quick hook, it can be taken two ways, but most of the time it hurts your confidence. So Nick being able to play through that and having more certainty to his game and not having to double-think what he’s doing on the floor, and instead playing off his instincts — that’s a better Nick Richards.”