There isn’t one player from the John Calipari era that has undergone as severe a transition in just three seasons as Nick Richards. A clumsy, baby deer-like freshman turned into an All-American hopeful just two years later.
Earlier on Tuesday, the junior center announced his intentions to leave Kentucky for the prospect of playing in the NBA. However, most mock drafts don’t foresee him making the leap so easily.
Richards’ status on draft boards ranges anywhere from the mid-40s to the late-50s. As we approach the halfway point of April, the consensus among experts seems to indicate that the 6-foot-11 center will either find himself in the middle of the second round or possibly even undrafted.
(Tankathon has Richards as the No. 61 overall prospect. The Athletic has him at No. 46 and ESPN at No. 59. He is not currently featured in NBC Sports mock draft, which only projects the top-40 selections.)
Richards rapidly improved over the summer following his sophomore season and broke out as a legitimate SEC Player of the Year performer in 2019-20. Playing nearly 30 minutes per game as a junior, Calipari was finally unable to unlock the big man’s potential. Richards poured in 14.0 points and snagged 7.8 boards in 31 games while shooting 64.4 percent (4th in the nation) from the floor. While Immanuel Quickley assumed the position as the team’s go-to player throughout the SEC schedule, Richards was still productive, if not more so than during nonconference play.
As you might recall, there is a lot to love about the native of Jamaica.
There aren’t many players as big as Richards that can move their feet as quickly as he can. He enjoys running the floor and creating easy scoring opportunities for his guards as the defense trails well-behind him. He can defend all over the court, showing the ability to slow down slithering point guards and stay in front of the powerful brutes in the paint. Pick-and-roll defense shouldn’t be too hard for him to pick up on.
A 7-foot-4 wingspan allowed him to swat 2.1 shots per game. How many near 7-footers can shoot 75 percent from the charity stripe? His jump shot is smooth as butter. It’s not like he doesn’t have an interior game, either.
Calipari said earlier in the season that conditioning was the key to his consistent success. Richards had hit his stride as a competitor before COVID-19 canceled the season. He fell in love with the process of becoming the best player he could possibly be. If he can keep that up going to the next level and beyond, there is no reason to believe that Richards can’t make himself into an NBA-caliber player.
Everyone from the coaches to the players to the students to the fans all publicly adore Richards and respect him as an incredibly decent human being.
But if that were all there was to say about Richards, I wouldn’t be writing this article. There are flaws in his game that make NBA franchises hesitant.
Most notably, Richards did not attempt one 3-pointer during his three-year stay at Kentucky. Just 23 career assists (a mere seven as a junior) are irrelevant compared to his 101 career turnovers. He recorded only three steals in over 900 minutes last season. He still needs another post move or two. Will he be able to show enough discipline in the paint that he can eventually turn into a reliable rim protector against much bigger and stronger NBA players?
These are some of the red flags that have tanked Richards’ draft stock. Unfortunately, he won’t have an opportunity to participate in any workout combines or personal interviews. Chances to drastically improve his stock are all but gone, especially with the status of the NBA Draft still up in the air.
For all we know, maybe Richards has always had range from beyond the arc. Calipari has been famous (and sometimes criticized) for putting his team in the best position to win. For the 2019-20 version of the Wildcats, setting up Richards for pick-and-pop situations or corner triples wasn’t what they needed to succeed. Running the floor, protecting the rim, and playing hard were Richards’ personal keys to earning a Kentucky victory.
So what’s his NBA potential?
The modern NBA offense is built around perimeter shooting, to the point where if you’re over 6-foot-9 and can’t shoot the ball, you better be damn good at something else. There are already some prime examples of players that fit the mold of Richards and what he might be able to immediately bring to an NBA roster.
Jarrett Allen (Brooklyn Nets), Mitchell Robinson (New York Knicks), and Clint Capela (Atlanta Hawks) are all good examples of young and athletic bigs who excel at running the floor and protecting the rim. But not even those three are anywhere close to perfect versions of themselves; Robinson is one of the most foul prone players in the league while Capela’s inability to shoot from beyond 12-feet ultimately got him traded from a playoff team to the lousy Hawks.
Richards still has a long way to go before he can translate his talents into what we see from the modern center. That doesn’t mean he can’t get there, but his current skillset doesn’t ideally fit what NBA teams are looking for.
Allen was selected with a 22nd overall pick, Robinson was a 36th pick, and Capela went 25th. They were viewed as projects when they came along from the jump and, for the most part, still are. However, not one of them can consistently knock it down from 15-feet out. Richards has shown that he has the touch to even extend his range.
A beautiful release, a 75 percent mark from the free-throw line, and a capable mid-range jumper will set him apart from the pack. Karl-Anthony Towns was 2-8 from 3 as a freshman at Kentucky and now he’s the league’s most versatile offensive center.
Okay, so KAT might be an impossibly unfair comparison, but Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks) and Marc Gasol (Toronto Raptors) both came into the league as non-shooters and are now two of the NBA’s most respectable shooting big men. Richards has shown all the signs necessary to indicate he can adopt an outside shot – and he hasn’t even gotten into the league yet.
Without a regular draft process, I think it’s safe to say that no one has any idea where Richards will get picked up. The second-round feels like a good bet, but that could range from the 31st pick to the 60th. I think it’s important to note that Richards has only been playing organized basketball in the United States since he was a freshman in high school. Roughly seven years later, he was named an All-SEC First-Team performer. A good chunk of that development happened in one summer.
Who’s to say Richards doesn’t have another leap or two left in him?