When Kentucky center Nick Richards went down with a left ankle injury and was helped off the floor on Sunday evening, silence fell upon the Rupp Arena faithful.
With depth in the UK frontcourt already in question, a serious Richards injury was the obvious nightmare scenario. And with the 6-foot-11 center immediately declared “out” upon returning to the Kentucky locker room, along with the lack of news immediately after the game and the days following, fans didn’t necessarily have reason to feel at ease.
This afternoon, Kentucky announced Richards was “day-to-day” with a left ankle sprain, an obvious relief from a long-term perspective.
Short-term, however, the questions were still valid.
With exhibition play set to conclude on Friday evening, Kentucky will begin its regular season slate on Tuesday against top-ranked Michigan State in the Champions Classic.
If Richards is unable to suit up against the Spartans, though, who can the Wildcats turn to in the frontcourt?
Insert Kentucky freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr.
Once Richards went down on Sunday night, Brooks slid down to the four in spot minutes to close out the half. When starting forward EJ Montgomery needed a breather, the five-star freshman out of Fort Wayne, IN joined Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina in the frontcourt.
And while a final statline of eight points (3-7 shooting), one rebound, one block, and one steal doesn’t necessarily turn heads, his style of play and comfortability at the position certainly did.
“I think he responded well,” Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee told KSR on Friday afternoon. “The thing about this team is that we can play a lot of different styles. We talk about positionless basketball. Most of these guys are bigger guys, they grew up playing big. Keion [Brooks] grew up as a center in the game, transformed his game to become a wing player.”
Despite shooting 3-for-7 from the field, Brooks had no problem posting Tiger defenders up and creating space for strong attempts at the rim. The footwork and fundamentals were there, and at 6-foot-8, 205 pounds, he was never overmatched by the opposition from a strength and size perspective.
He didn’t make all of his shot attempts – nor will he moving forward – but Brooks showed just enough to let the Kentucky coaching staff know they can be comfortable going small.
“We can play small, or we can play big,” Barbee continued. “We can go to a traditional game. That’s a plus for this team. If one player goes down, we can work on a different style, and we’ve been doing that in practice [with Nick Richards out].”
It’s not ideal, but with the Kentucky coaching staff utilizing a positionless style of play moving forward, Brooks being able to play spot minutes at the four is exactly why his signature was so vital this past spring.
“As you can see with this team, as we’ve seen over the last couple years, we’ve tried to become positionless,” Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus added. “Keion is one of those guys that you can slide all over the floor. He can be in the post, he can be in the high post, he can be a trailer. He’s a guy who can get out and run on the break, he can play in a delayed break. I think you’re going to see Keion all over the place throughout this entire year. He’s just so versatile, that’s why he was such an important guy for us to get and add to this [2019 recruiting] class.”
It wasn’t all pretty, though. Between spending time at the wing and at the four, the opportunities for rebounds were plentiful.
To end the game, though, both Brooks and wing-mate Kahlil Whitney finished with just one rebound in a combined 48 minutes of action. This afternoon, Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne said the Wildcat freshmen will need to make a bigger impact on the glass moving forward.
“[One rebound] definitely won’t get it done,” Payne said. “They’re a lot better than that. You can’t judge them by that game because they are better than that. They’ll go out, and I’m sure this game, they’ll be in-tuned to rebounding better.”
When Richards returns to the lineup, Brooks will be allowed to float back to the small forward position, only playing the four in short stints.
Until then, though, the five-star freshman will be relied on to contribute in the Kentucky frontcourt early and often.