Just six games into his Kentucky career back in 2017, Nick Richards managed a 25-point, 15-rebound double-double against Purdue Fort Wayne, also adding two blocks and an assist in the 86-67 victory.
From that point on, Richards broke the double-digit point barrier in just seven games out of a possible 68 through the 2018-19 season.
In the final ten games of his 2017-18 freshman campaign, Richards played more than ten minutes just once (19 minutes in a loss at Florida), scoring a total of 11 points in that span. And then as a sophomore, the Kingston, Jamaica native finished with ten minutes or less in 17 games, including a total of five minutes in Kentucky’s final two NCAA Tournament games against Houston in the Sweet 16 and Auburn in the Elite Eight.
After a 14-point outing against Vanderbilt on Jan. 29 – the most since his 25-point game as a freshman – Richards closed out the year with 17 consecutive outings of nine points or fewer. His entire sophomore campaign consisted of 24 games with five points or fewer, including seven zero-point finishes.
With PJ Washington and Reid Travis anchoring the frontcourt last season, the “Sophomore Nick Richards” schtick was obviously tongue-in-cheek. As nice as it would have been for the 6-foot-11 center to find some consistency and confidence throughout the year, especially when Washington and Travis dealt with their respective injuries to close out the regular season and into postseason play, his success wasn’t make-or-break for the team. Even with a post-heavy offense, the ball was never going to run through Richards’ hands as a primary scoring option.
With Washington and Travis both gone, along with Kentucky missing out on frontcourt targets Kerry Blackshear Jr., N’Faly Dante, and Jaden McDaniels in the spring, the importance of “Junior Nick Richards” was no longer a schtick. With just three true big men on scholarship, the team simply needed him to take a major step forward this offseason. It wasn’t just hope, it was out of necessity.
John Calipari said as much going into the year.
“Right now he’s really playing well and he’s playing confident and, obviously, the expectation is this is his time,” Calipari said at UK Media Day in October. “He played against two moose last year. They could take your confidence away. But he, right now, what he’s doing on the court and how he’s playing, whether he goes against E.J. (Montgomery), whether he goes against Nate (Sestina), scoring around the basket, shooting the ball better, running, he’s in the best shape I’ve seen him in.”
His only question at the time, though, was how he would respond when the season opened up. Would that confidence remain off the practice floor and against new competition?
“You’ve got to get on the court, and now you’re playing against a player that’s [like] a football player that’s trying to just say, “I know I can’t play you, I’m going to try to rough you up.” Can you hold your ground?” Calipari continued. “Can you sustain your confidence in that kind of situation? Until we start playing games, who will know? Now, my hope is he’s ready for it. He’s been here, has a smile on his face, he’s a beautiful kid, he’s one of the nicest people we have had here. There’s no one rooting for him more than me.”
Five games into his junior campaign, and Richards has not only proven he has taken that next step forward, but that he can be the difference-maker he was brought in to be as a five-star, top-ranked center out of high school on a fairly consistent basis.
After an underwhelming shooting night to open the season against Michigan State (7 points on 2-7 shooting), Richards has followed it up with 19 or more points in three out of four games.
Against Eastern Kentucky, the junior center finished with 21 points on 10-11 shooting to go with ten rebounds, four blocks, and an assist. And his dominant performance wasn’t the product of overwhelming smaller defenders with strong post moves and easy finishes at the rim. Instead, he was a threat as a lob-catcher in transition, showed off several silky-smooth jump hooks, and mid-range jumpers outside the paint. Richards oozed confidence unlike anything we’ve seen during his time at Kentucky.
In a game where nearly everyone on the Kentucky roster fell flat, Richards struggled on both ends of the floor against Evansville, finishing with just six points (2-6 shooting), six rebounds, and an assist.
In one play in particular, though, Richards asked for the ball in the post down five with 1:22 to go in the game. He created space, established position, and lifted for the shoulder jump hook that fell time and time again just a game before.
As head-scratching as it felt at the time for the 6-foot-11 center to get the ball in the post with the game on the line, the confidence to put the team on his back was impressive. The shot rimmed out, but Richards would have wanted no part of that pressure just last season.
To follow up the Evansville loss, the junior big man finished with 21 points (8-11 shooting, 5-5 FT), ten rebounds, and a block against Utah Valley before putting up 19 points (7-10 shooting, 5-6 FT), six rebounds, three blocks, and an assist against Mount St. Mary’s.
For the third time in four games, Richards looked like the best player on the floor on both ends.
“Nick is capable,” Calipari said during his postgame press conference on Friday evening. “He’s not the same guy. When he’s alert and active, whew.”
Calipari highlighted a single stretch for Richards in the Mount St. Mary’s victory that really caught his attention.
“I don’t know if you remember the play in front of their bench,” he said. “The guy went down the sideline, he showed hard. The guy went up the middle on the dribble. Wasn’t his man. A guy drove baseline and he blocked it, all in one play.”
When asked about the pick-and-pop Calipari has been running specifically for Richards, the UK head coach said they’ll continue to do it as long as the shots are falling.
“Well, it’s not a new thing,” Calipari said of the pick-and-pop opportunities. “When he’s in practice, everything we’re doing, he’s leading us in shooting, so he’s going to shoot [in the games]. … He missed a shot at the elbow, we ran another play for him. Instead of shooting the ball again, he tried to drive it, turned it over. What are you doing? [I told him,] “That’s for you to shoot.” We ran it again, he made it.”
Five games into his junior season, Richards is averaging 14.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game, along with shooting 64.4% from the field and 82.4% from the free throw line. All of those numbers are career-highs.
In terms of advanced numbers, the 6-foot-11 center is averaging 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks PER-40 minutes to go with a career-high offensive rating (points scored/produced per 100 possessions) of 130.3 and a career-low defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 86.6.
The sample size is small and the competition has not been elite by any stretch of the imagination, but Richards is producing more and showing off greater confidence during this stretch than any period in his first two seasons in Lexington.
With Kentucky short on numbers and in desperate need of a consistent force in the frontcourt, “Junior Nick Richards” has shown he can carry that weight.