Nick Richards had the raw tools of a player who could be useful and productive for Kentucky. He had the body. He had the springy legs and the energy. Effort level has not been a problem for him. What did we so often comment on last season? Richards’ hands were stone blocks.
By Matt Zemek
For whatever reason, Richards couldn’t catch the ball reliably in the low post. He had trouble securing loose balls. His understanding of what to do on the court wasn’t fully developed, but when a big man can’t consistently catch the ball, that problem dwarfs everything else. Richards had to accept a minor, peripheral role on the Wildcats last season.
Richards, however, had an example to study and learn from. P.J. Washington wasn’t the complete player he hoped to be in the 2017-2018 season, so Washington went back to the drawing board and worked on his game. In the 2018-2019 season, Kentucky fans and coaches – alongside Richards – saw how much the hard work paid off.
Washington didn’t instantly enter the NBA as a one-and-done success story under John Calipari. He hoped he would be that kind of player, but he realized he wasn’t ready and embraced the task of building his skill base.
Last June, Washington became a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, getting taken at No. 12 by the Charlotte Hornets. The delay in his development did not mark the denial or prevention of that development. Washington was patient. He stayed the course. He had a great 2019 season and earned his NBA day in the sun.
Nick Richards was clearly paying attention.
Yes, we saw Richards come up with the key rebounds and big plays late in the season-changing win over Louisville which restored Kentucky’s belief in itself. Yes, we have seen Richards become the face of this team and its most consistent performer. We already knew that Richards was central, not peripheral, to the 2019-2020 Wildcats.
Richards was a vital, central figure in last week’s road comeback against Arkansas. The Hogs are a good team, so Richards’ closing flurry with John Calipari in the locker room (having been ejected) was a visible display of leadership by example.
Richards took that concept to another level on Saturday at Texas Tech.
Words and communication have their place in building a better team, but the best thing a teammate can do is perform the work at an elite level when it needs to be done. Richards did exactly that in the Wildcats’ overtime win over the Red Raiders.
Speeches have a certain degree of eloquence, but 25 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocked shots is the most eloquent statement a Kentucky basketball player can make. Nick Richards, in his third season – long past the time when a lot of Calipari recruits leave Lexington – is showing that his first two years of struggle at UK were not wasted seasons. The lessons gathered in those years, from P.J. Washington and others, are translating into elite basketball.
Richards now has a blended game, offering interior muscle and better hand skills but also the mid-range jump shooting which earns big men a fat NBA paycheck. Richards’ evolution into a resourceful, adaptable weapon at both ends of the floor has become central to Kentucky’s survival in recent weeks. Without this level of development from Richards, Kentucky would have lost to Texas Tech, just as it also would have lost to Arkansas.
Kentucky is winning games, but not without letting leads evaporate. It paid a price at South Carolina but was able to rescue itself after losing second-half leads against both Texas Tech and Arkansas. Some of the most annoying habits of this team are persisting, but Richards is minimizing their negative effects.
Did we expect Nick Richards to improve this season? Yes. Did we expect Nick Richards to become such a complete player? Many probably did not (including me)… but that is exactly why Kentucky still has a legitimate chance to create a special season.