When it comes to Kentucky basketball, there is a dirty little secret that isn’t dirty and really isn’t a secret: Most guys hope to spend just a year or two at Kentucky before moving on.
Understand that’s not a knock on Kentucky, Lexington or college basketball as a whole. But the reality is, for the best players, the guys that Kentucky recruits, they all hope that college is a short stop on the way to making millions in the NBA. Listen, as much fun as we all had in college, if there were millions of dollars on the other end, we’d be in a rush to get out of there too.
Why do I bring that up? Well, it’s that following the unfortunate news that Nate Sestina will be out an extended period time with a wrist injury (as little as three to four weeks, or, according to Ryan Lemond, potentially longer) it means that it’s time for two players with NBA dreams to step up and prove that they actually belong on NBA Draft boards.
I’m of course talking about Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.
And if they really are true NBA prospects, guys ready play at the next level next season, then they will use this injury as a springboard to show it. While Sestina going down undoubtedly sucks for Kentucky, it is also an opportunity for Richards and Montgomery to get virtually unlimited playing time and prove just how capable they are.
The question now? Will they do it or not?
To be clear, I’m not saying that Kentucky’s entire success or failure this season is only on their shoulders. Obviously, with one guy down for an extended period of time, everyone has to step up. The backcourt needs to continue to play like it has the last few games and provide scoring and perimeter defense. It’s also on the wings; John Calipari hinted that fans should expect to see more “small ball” with Kahlil Whitney and potentially Keion Brooks at the four spot.
Still, Kentucky’s success and failures without Sestina in the lineup won’t fall on Tyrese Maxey or Ashton Hagans or Immanuel Quickley or Kahlil Whitney, as much as it will fall on Richards and Montgomery. Both have shown flashes at different points of what they’re capable of becoming. Now its on them to put it all together.
Let’s start with Richards, who to his credit, has made leaps and bounds this season. Now in his junior year (hence the name “Junior Nick Richards” – credit Drew Franklin), Richards has been one of the pleasant surprises in all of college basketball this season, averaging 14 points, eight boards and 2.5 blocks early on. He has had some of his best games as a college player the last few weeks, with 21 points and 10 boards against Utah Valley, 19 against Mount St. Mary’s and another double-double (10 and 13) against Lamar.
Still, Richards early season success has largely been a somewhat unexpected addition to the Wildcats’ offensive attack early. Can Richards continue to produce at such a high level when his team needs it? We’ll begin to find out here soon.
Then there is Montgomery, and you don’t need me to tell you that – for whatever reason – it just hasn’t clicked for the former McDonald’s All-American. Montgomery simply had better players in front of him last season, and this season has battled a litany of small injuries. Still, you’d have hoped he’d be giving you more production than he has early in the season.
The good news is that there is still time. And like Richards, with the injury to Sestina, there is nothing in the way to Montgomery playing more, and potentially taking advantage of it.
And by the way, that last part is kind of an important key right there. These are two players who have largely battled confidence issues throughout their time at Kentucky. Well, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue anymore. With such little depth in the front court, I simply can’t imagine that John Calipari will have as quick of a hook with either one, and in theory, they should be allowed to play through their mistakes and hopefully build some confidence.
Now it’s on them to deliver.
Which really does bring me back to what I said at the top. It’s been a not so little secret that both players (as well as the coaching staff) expects that this will be the final season for each in Lexington. That both will be entering the draft and testing their fortunes in the NBA in a few months from now.
Well, if they really are good enough to play at the next level, now is the time to prove it. Now is the time for Montgomery to step up, and prove that he can be something similar to what PJ Washington evolved into late last season. Maybe Montgomery will never become a fringe All-American or SEC Player of the Year candidate, but there is no reason that he can’t be one of the better big guys in the SEC, a guy who can consistently get double-doubles and provide points in the paint. There’s also no reason that Richards can’t continue to do what he has done so far, and that’s continue to be a walking double-double, a guy with all the moves in the low post, who also brings energy on defense and on the boards.
In the end, there is no one in the way of Richards and Montgomery. No one ahead of them on the depth chart, and no one in the way of allowing either to reach their full potential.
As things stand, every opportunity in the world is in front of them, not only for this season, but for next season and beyond as well.
Now it’s time for them to show just how good they can be.