Going into the season, immense pressure was placed on Kentucky center Nick Richards to take a major step forward as a junior. After striking out on some of their other top recruiting targets in the frontcourt this past offseason, the 7-foot, 245-pound center was expected to receive as many minutes and opportunities to succeed as he could handle.
And with limited options elsewhere, it was vital for the potential of the 2019-20 team to make the most of his time on the floor.
Through 15 games, Richards is averaging career-highs in points (13.0), rebounds (7.7), blocks (2.3), field goal percentage (67%), and minutes (28.8). More specifically, he has scored in double figures 11 times, 15 or more points six times, and 21 or more points three times. He has also managed ten or more rebounds in a game seven times and two or more blocks eight times.
Needless to say, the team needed Richards to make a jump, and he did just that.
During his media opportunity this afternoon, Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne said Richards had all the tools to have success last season, he just didn’t have the confidence.
“I will tell you that Nick Richards had it figured out last year. He had it figured out last year,” Payne said. “Last year, Nick Richards didn’t play against an opponent, he stopped playing against an opponent as a freshman. Going into his sophomore year, he was going against Nick. It’s mental.”
Now, he has all of the physical attributes necessary to be a dominant player in the frontcourt. As long as he maintains that confidence, the success is going to continue.
“There’s nothing more skill wise [that he needs],” Payne said. “He can shoot it, he can catch the ball, he’s got a left hand, he’s got a right hand. One of the hardest things to do in this game as a post scorer, he’s got a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook. I’m working with him, watching him, and he’s practicing on running hooks across the lane. I’m seeing it with either hand. I’m seeing him get confident shooting 15-18 footers. I’m seeing him get offensive rebounds. It’s mental. It’s all mental, the [physical] moment happened last year.”
While Payne wants the confidence to stick, he also doesn’t want it to turn into an arrogance.
At the end of the day, there is no relaxing. There is always room to grow.
“Nick, growing up, was late to the game,” he said. “He didn’t start playing at a young age. Nick was a piece to the puzzle, not the puzzle. So coming here, and this year particularly, he’s a big piece to the puzzle. We need Nick Richards to be great. So what happens with most kids, when success happens and you’re doing great, you think you’ve arrived. No. We’re not going to relax and let you think you’ve arrived. When you play good, and we win, and the next day at practice you come in with a smile on your face? ‘Get your behind on that line.’ Like, we need you hungry every moment that you’re on the court. You will never relax. Not here.”
Payne compared Richards’ situation and growth to that of former Kentucky star Willie Cauley-Stein.
It wasn’t always easy, and there were mental hurdles to clear, but Cauley-Stein ended his time in Lexington as one of the best defensive players in program history. Three years into his career, Richards is finally reaching his potential in the same way WCS did.
“Well, I’ll tell you that it reminds me a little bit of Willie, Willie Cauley-Stein, and the fact that year one he was really good,” Payne said. “Nick probably wasn’t as good. And when I say good (I mean) defensively. Willie was off the charts feet wise. He could move his feet with anybody. Year two, Willie came in and said at the beginning of the year, ‘KP, I think I want to leave at the end of this year.’ ‘Willie. You can’t leave here just being one-dimensional. You have to have a confidence that you can play some kind of offense.’ Well that was in November. We leave to go to the NCAA Tournament and there’s a note on my wall. Well, the wall is closed. ‘I’m coming back for year three because of what you said in November.’ So that transformation to his junior year, he was the sixth pick in the draft.
“So, when I think about Nick, I think about how much he’s concurred mentally but how far he has to go as well. So, yeah, I’m pleased. But by no stretch of the imagination has Nick Richards reached how good he can be. He still has a lot of blocks, mentally, that he has to overcome. But a 7-footer that runs like that, that has the ability to shoot the ball like that, that jumps elbows at the top of the square, he has physical gifts that are off the charts. His only issue is how he perceives those physical gifts. It’s not skill wise. There’s a lot left in him.”