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Kentucky Basketball Player Preview: The rise of Nick Richards

Like a few big men under John Calipari, Nick Richards had a frustrating freshman season for the ‘Cats. But, if his performance in the Bahamas is any indication of what’s to come, he’s in line for a terrific sophomore campaign.

Nick Richards Sea of Blue

Who are we talking about?

Nick Richards, sophomore center

What did he do last season?

Like Kentucky as a whole, Richards got off to a bit of a slow start, but unfortunately for him and the ‘Cats, his start carried on throughout pretty much the entire season. Richards started 37 games, but played in a shade less than 15 minutes per game (14.7) because of his lack of impact on both ends on the floor. It was really another Skal Labissiere situation for Calipari; a talented big that continuously played with a lack of confidence all season.

2017-18 statistics:

37 games (all starts), 14.7 minutes per game, 5.1 points, 4.4 rebounds per game on 61.6 percent shooting while also shooting 71.8 percent from the line on 1.9 attempts per contest.

His best performance from last season:

Richards was likely licking his chops against an experienced, but smaller Fort Wayne lineup that challenged the Wildcats throughout much of the night, but Richards dominated the action, scoring 25 points on 9-of-10 shooting with 15 rebounds and a pair of blocks in what was easily his best outing of the season.

The performance was the first of its kind (25-point, 10+ rebounds in a game) since Wildcat great Terrence Jones did the same thing during the 2010 NIT against Notre Dame.

Richards has since followed that up with a 16-point, 16-rebound, five-block performance in the Blue-White Game. While it’s hard to take anything away from a team scrimmage, it did reinforce the belief that Richards is a vastly different player from last year, and that his Bahamas performance was no fluke.

It’s just the Bahamas tour, but Nick Richards looks like a brand new prospect (which is kinda scary)

It took all of about 10 minutes — albeit, against lesser competition — during the first game of the preseason Bahamas tour for Kentucky to see how different of a player Nick Richards looked. Not only did he look slimmer, healthier and faster, his game looked improved and much smoother.

What caught my attention in the game (other than PJ Washington just straight doing everything for the ‘Cats and Tyler Herro’s offensive firepower) was Richards’ smoothness and soft touch offensively.

Once again, it was lesser competition than the ‘Cats will see in the heart of their SEC schedule this year, but notice how Richards established good and deep post positioning and showed such softness on his shot attempts. That’s a kid that’s been truly working on his game and playing with confidence.

“Family members told me it looked like I wasn’t having any fun out there,” Richards said about last season, per Jerry Tipton of Kentucky.com. “It looked like I wasn’t really into the game as much as I was.”

Both Richards and Calipari each talked about Richards speaking with Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist that has written books more about the psychological aspects of golf, but speaks with Richards constantly about things outside of just basketball.

It’s like Calipari says often. Kentucky isn’t for everybody. Putting on the blue and white of the Wildcats is one of the hardest things to do in college sports as a young 17, 18-year-old kid. It’s like putting on a football uniform for USC, Texas, Alabama, Notre Dame or Ohio State. The pressure is immense every day and there’s only one goal: win as much as possible.

That pressure probably got to Richards like it has to many other players that have played in the Calipari era. Sure, there are other factors that go into it, like the amount of touches or minutes a player gets within the system, but it’s not crazy to think a lack of confidence was a major factor in Richards’ struggles a year ago.

“Nick looks like a completely different player,” Herro said, via Jon Page of the Louisville Courier-Journal during the Bahamas trip. “What he’s doing with the ball on the inside, blocking shots, that’s a credit to him and how much hard work he’s put in over the summer and since last season. I’m really excited for him.”

The frontcourt depth isn’t going to be an issue for Kentucky with the return of Richards, Washington and the arrival of former All-Pac-12 performer Reid Travis. That’s not even including E.J. Montgomery either.

It’s clear that Calipari will have no problem sitting Richards if he continues to struggle again this season, but that’s the thing: Richards doesn’t appear to be relinquishing that starting center role any time soon. The Bahamas trip might have been exactly what he needed to get his journey to the draft back on track.