Kentucky sophomore center Nick Richards will be the first to tell you his first season as a Wildcat did not go as expected. He came in as highly-touted five-star prospect with high expectations, but by the end of the year, he struggled to earn minutes entirely.
In the team’s final ten games, Richards broke ten minutes on the floor just once. And in that span, he never scored more than two points in a single game.
His confidence was shot. He didn’t even flirt with the idea of putting his name in the NBA Draft.
Through four games in the Bahamas and Kentucky’s annual Blue-White scrimmage, however, Richards looks like a completely different player. He’s dominating in the post, scoring from the inside, rebounding the ball, and blocking shots. The sophomore 7-footer isn’t fumbling the ball in the paint or missing alley-oop receptions.
Above all else, after spending time with sports psychologist Bob Rotella this summer, the confidence is back. He’s smiling and having a good time on the floor. He’s blocking shots and staring down the opposition afterward. Richards isn’t just pushing through his freshman slump, he’s breaking through with force.
Richards finished tonight’s Blue-White Game with 16 points (8-12 shooting), 16 rebounds, five blocks, and a steal. He may not have been the most flashy player, nor did he lead the team in points, but he was making a massive impact on both ends of the floor.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game that Richards finally understands what he’s capable of and not worrying about making mistakes.
“He has a smile and he’s looking up,” said Calipari. “He doesn’t look like he’s shuffling his feet looking down. He’s confident in who he is and what he does.”
And as a result, he’s finally enjoying himself and the game of basketball each time he steps on the floor.
“I’m mostly just trying to have fun playing basketball again,” Richards said after the scrimmage.
The sophomore out of New Jersey added that his only focus now is to help his team out however possible, not worrying about the statistics or making mistakes.
“I just play basketball,” said Richards. “Whatever I’m doing on the court that’s benefitting the team I go out and continue to do that for 40 minutes. I’m just not worrying about the little things. … I’m not worried about anything at all, just a care-free attitude.”
Freshman guard Tyler Herro, who led the team in points with 34 points on just 16 shots, said the success Richards is having to start the year is no surprise. The work he’s putting in after hours is resulting in development on the stat sheet.
“He’s obviously just a whole new player, as you’ve seen in the Bahamas and again tonight,” he said. “It just shows how hard he works, you see him in the gym every night. … He’s always in the gym and working on his game and getting better. And it’s starting to show.”
We have joked about “Sophomore Nick Richards” throughout the offseason here on the site, but the idea of the Kentucky big man having a massive breakout year is starting to look like reality. For a team that already has so much depth in the frontcourt, it’s a scary thought to have Richards reaching his potential with this group.