Mark Story

In returning to Kentucky, Nick Richards joins this rare list of Cats

Nick Richards feels like one thing has been holding the Kentucky center back

Kentucky center Nick Richards said he needs to improve in one area after a frustrating freshman season. He believes he already sees improvement.
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Kentucky center Nick Richards said he needs to improve in one area after a frustrating freshman season. He believes he already sees improvement.

The announcement Tuesday by Nick Richards that he is returning to the Kentucky Wildcats’ men’s basketball team for the 2019-20 season is very good news for UK backers.

Richards, a 6-foot-11, 244-pound product of Kingston, Jamaica, joins Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina and 6-11 sophomore-to-be EJ Montgomery as the only post players currently on John Calipari’s projected 2019-20 roster.

Last season, in a supporting role for the Cats, Richards averaged 4.0 points a game, 3.3 rebounds and had a team-high 47 blocked shots.

With both UK starting post players Reid Travis (eligibility expired) and PJ Washington (turned pro) departing, the opportunity for Richards to become a vital player for Kentucky next season is prime.

Merely by returning to UK for a third season, Richards has joined a rare group of Calipari-era Cats.

Not counting holdover players/signees from Billy Gillispie, only five prior recruited, scholarship players signed by Calipari out of high school have played for UK into their junior years.

Let’s examine how staying at Kentucky for at least three seasons turned out for the first five before Richards:

Alex Poythress

Years at UK: 2012-2016.

Kentucky career capsule: As a sophomore, Poythress was one of the heroes of UK’s unexpected run to the 2014 NCAA Tournament title game, hitting 15 of 22 shots in the tourney.

A knee injury that limited Poythress to eight games as a junior in 2014-15 helped make the 6-8, 230-pound product of Clarksville, Tenn., the first four-year player at Kentucky that was signed by Calipari out of high school.

Poythress finished his UK career with 966 points and 597 rebounds.

Since he left UK: Undrafted by the NBA, Poythress has nevertheless played 52 career games in the league over the past three years, having spent time with the Philadelphia 76ers (six games in 2016-17), Indiana Pacers (25 games in 2017-18) and Atlanta Hawks (21 games in 2018-19).

Alex Poythress
Alex Poythress (22) was the first player John Calipari signed out of high school at Kentucky who finished his eligibility in a UK uniform. Mark Cornelison mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Derek Willis

Years at UK: 2013-17.

Kentucky career capsule: The first in-state player signed by Calipari at Kentucky, Willis played only 114 minutes combined in his first two seasons at UK.

However, the 6-9, 220-pound Bullitt East High School product persevered and became a regular part of Calipari’s playing rotation over his final two college seasons. As a junior, Willis averaged 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds.

He followed that up as a senior by averaging 7.0 points and 5.4 rebounds to help UK reach the NCAA Tournament round of eight where the Cats fell to North Carolina on Luke Maye’s buzzer-beater.

Since he left UK: In 2017-18, Willis averaged 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds for Grand Rapids Drive in the NBA G League. This past season, he has averaged 12.1 points and a team-high 5.0 rebounds for German pro team BG Goettingen.

Derek Willis
Derek Willis was a key member of John Calipari’s playing rotation during both his junior (2015-16) and senior (2016-17) seasons at Kentucky. Michael Conroy AP

Dominique Hawkins

Years at UK: 2013-17.

Kentucky career capsule: Kentucky’s 2013 Mr. Basketball after leading Madison Central to the Sweet Sixteen title, Hawkins was a late addition to UK’s ballyhooed 2013 recruiting class.

The 6-foot, 190-pound guard scored only 293 career points at UK, but he had an impact greater than those numbers suggest.

As a freshman, Hawkins became the perimeter defensive stopper on Kentucky’s 2014 NCAA runner-up team. In his junior season, Hawkins was the hero of UK’s 75-73 win over archrival Louisville, scoring 13 points, including UK’s final five.

Down the stretch of his senior season, Hawkins played the best basketball of his career. He earned All-SEC Tournament honors, then hit 12 of17 shots and scored 35 points in UK’s four NCAA Tournament games.

Since he left UK: Hawkins has played professionally in Estonia. According to realgm.com, he has averaged 13.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists for Repla BS in 2018-19.

Dominique Hawkins
Dominique Hawkins (25) played the best basketball of his Kentucky Wildcats career down the stretch of his senior season in 2016-17. Pablo Alcala Lexington Herald-Leader

Willie Cauley-Stein

Years at UK: 2012-15.

Kentucky career capsule: An injury that sidelined Cauley-Stein for the final three Kentucky games of the 2014 NCAA Tournament likely brought the 7-foot, 240-pound product of Olathe, Kan., back for a third college season.

That turned out to be fortuitous for Cauley-Stein, who was a consensus first-team All-America selection as a junior in 2014-15 on a UK team that reached the Final Four with a 38-0 record.

Cauley-Stein ended his three-year college career with 843 points, 655 rebounds and 233 blocked shots (behind only Jamaal Magloire’s 268 blocks on UK’s all-time list).

Since he left UK: Chosen No. 6 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft by Sacramento, Cauley-Stein has averaged 10.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in four seasons with the Kings.

1lMLCW.So.79.jpeg
Willie Cauley-Stein, left, posed with Piper Lee as he signed autographs before a Lexington Legends game. Only one Kentucky Wildcats basketball player blocked more shots in a UK uniform than the 233 Cauley-Stein blocked in his three-year Cats career. Herald-Leader

Marcus Lee

Years at UK: 2013-2016.

Kentucky career capsule: Lee’s UK claim to fame will always be his performance in the Wildcats’ 75-72 win over Michigan in the 2014 NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.

Pressed into action by an injury to Cauley-Stein in the prior game, the 6-9, 224-pound Lee came off the bench to hang 10 points and eight rebounds on the Wolverines in only 15 minutes of action.

As a junior in 2015-16, Lee averaged 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds and blocked 58 shots. However, after exploring the idea of turning pro following that season, Lee instead transferred to California.

Since he left UK: At California in 2017-18, Lee averaged career highs of 11.7 points and 7.2 rebounds and blocked 52 shots on a team that finished 8-24. This past season, Lee averaged 8.4 points and 6.5 rebounds for the NBA G League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Marcus Lee
Marcus Lee (00) blocked 58 shots for Kentucky during the 2015-16 season. After his junior year, Lee transferred from UK to California. Mark Mahan

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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