This afternoon, Sophomore Nick Richards officially graduated to Junior Nick Richards, as the 6-foot-11 center announced he would be returning to Kentucky for another season.
“These past two years have been the best of my life,” Richards said in a press release. “It’s been an incredible experience. I’ve learned a lot, but the job’s not done yet. BBN, are you ready for year three?”
We know it’s a big decision for the Wildcats and the layout of the 2019-20 roster, but why?
Here are five reasons why Kentucky fans should be excited about Richard sticking around for another season in Lexington:
It was a necessity
Before we get into the specifics of what Richards brings to the table as a player, the fact of the matter is that Kentucky needed a body in the frontcourt, and they needed one badly.
We’re still waiting on a decision from freshman forward EJ Montgomery, but looking at the roster as it currently stands, they are loaded in the backcourt and incredibly thin up front. Before Richards made his decision today, Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina (6-foot-9) was the only confirmed scholarship player on the roster listed as taller than 6-foot-7.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has flirted with small-ball lineups as of late, and he certainly has the tools to utilize them a lot more next season with Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks Jr. both being solid post threats. Having just one legitimate big man, though, is far too risky going into the year.
If Montgomery leaves for the NBA Draft, Kentucky would still like one more piece to add to the frontcourt, with Kerry Blackshear Jr. being the obvious replacement option. If the Virginia Tech forward stays in the draft, that would leave the UK coaching staff scouring the graduate transfer market (slim pickings) and/or forcing their hand to convince a 2020 prospect or two to reclassify to 2019.
One more piece is certainly doable. Adding two solid contributors this late in the game, though? That’s an awful lot of pressure on the coaching staff.
With Richards now back for a junior campaign, the Cats have a bit of flexibility and far less weight on their shoulders to hit a home run to close out the 2019-20 roster.
Potential for spike in production
As much as Kentucky needed Richards to return from a pure numbers standpoint, it’s also important to factor in that we could see a massive jump in the 6-foot-11 center’s game next season.
Looking at Willie Cauley-Stein’s statistics from his time in Lexington, specifically during his phenomenal junior campaign, the 7-footer managed PER-40 numbers of 13.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per contest. Taking an even deeper look, Cauley-Stein finished with an offensive rating (points scored or produced per 100 possessions) of 119.8 and a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 80.
As for Richards last year, the sophomore big man had PER-40 totals of 13.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 4.2 blocks per game to go with an offensive rating of 123.1 and a defensive rating of 93.4.
Obviously Cauley-Stein was the superior player and was a consensus First-Team All-American and National Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, but Richards is no chopped liver.
When he announced he was returning to school this afternoon, John Calipari said that he believes Richards could be the best big man in the nation.
In fact, he expects it.
“I’m excited to continue to coach Nick because I know how special he can be,” he said. “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. There is nothing that Nick hasn’t seen at this point, and he knows what my expectations are for him in his junior season. I want him to dominate the game and affect it on every single possession.”
With confidence, Richards has proven he can be that dominant player. He’s had point totals of 25, 14, 12, 11, and 10 (five times), rebound totals of 19, 15 (twice), nine (twice), and eight (five times), and has finished with two or more blocks 21 times in two seasons as a Wildcat.
We joked a lot about “Sophomore Nick Richards” last year, but if he can combine his natural gifts as a pure athlete with just a slight bit of confidence in his abilities, the forward out of Kingston, Jamaica can be a high-impact player for Kentucky next season.
Style of play
As mentioned earlier, Coach Cal toyed with small-ball lineups a bit last season, and judging by how he has constructed his roster with long, athletic wings, he’s interested in doing something similar this season. In fact, sources have told KSR that the Kentucky head coach is trying to go back to his four-out Dribble Drive system this season and play in the open floor as much as possible.
Richards is the perfect big man to make that happen.
The current roster is loaded with players that thrive in transition and are comfortable making plays with the ball in their hands. Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, Johnny Juzang, Whitney, Brooks Jr., and Dontaie Allen are all stellar at grabbing rebounds and/or loose balls and just taking off. With Sestina having the ability to knock down deep jumpers at a consistent rate, the only obvious hole on the team was a rim running big with the ability to run the floor, catch lobs, and defend the paint.
Richards is that guy.
He was compared to Cauley-Stein as a high school recruit, and unfortunately, we’ve only seen flashes of that in his first two years in Lexington. In his third, the fit is perfect for Richards to finally unlock some of that hidden potential.
This is an easy point to make, but it’s always an important and valuable one.
In two years, Richards has been to a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight. He’s had his ups and downs as a player, but he knows what it takes to win basketball games in the SEC and in postseason play.
We’ve seen sophomores like PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel, Isaiah Briscoe, and Tyler Ulis play major roles in recent memory, and we’ve also had graduate transfers such as Reid Travis, Julius Mays, and now Nate Sestina provide guidance as college basketball veterans. That being said, we rarely see third-year players with two full seasons under their belt in Lexington with the ability to provide that much-needed leadership in the locker room. In fact, this is the first time in three years that Kentucky has had a scholarship junior on the roster.
To take it a step further, it’s entirely possible that Kentucky boasts a starting lineup with a true freshman (Maxey, Whitney), sophomore (Hagans), junior (Richards), and senior (Sestina) next season.
Keeping Richards around for another year was huge for team chemistry and overall leadership.
Time for more phenomenal quotes
During his first season at Kentucky, Richards told KSR at UK Media Day that he enjoyed sitting in the dark in his free time. No television, no phone, no distractions, nothing.
“Nick Richards, he loves to sit in the dark. I don’t know why,” former UK point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said in 2017. “A lot of times when I go to his room, he’s just in the dark. His blinds are always down, he just loves the dark. I don’t understand why.”
When asked for his response, the Kentucky center had no rebuttal.
“Yeah, I do,” Richards said. “(I don’t meditate, either), I just… Whenever I’m by myself, I love sitting in the dark. It’s just how I’ve been since I was a little kid. I didn’t really like being around lights that much. I guess that’s a bad habit of mine.”
(Proof is HERE if you don’t believe me)
And then oddly enough, when Drew Franklin asked him about it this past season, Richards acted like he had no idea what he was talking about. Whether he dropped the habit, forgot he ever did it, or just lied, the quote was an absolute gem.
Fast forward to the end of this past season, Richards gave us yet another fascinating quote during the NCAA Tournament that certainly made headlines.
Prior to Kentucky’s Round of 32 matchup with Wofford, the Wildcat big man said the UK frontcourt was simply “better than them overall.”
“It’s a really good advantage for us,” he said. “They’re not really as athletic. … Their bigs are really skilled around the basket, they know how to move on the floor, but we’re just better than them overall, I think, so the advantage is our way, in my opinion.”
Probably wasn’t the best idea to give the Terriers locker room material with the season on the line, but it was priceless either way.
Hopefully a confidence boost this offseason will provide more great quotes and even better on-court performances.
Sophomore Junior Nick Richards.