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Kentucky Basketball Roster Review: How big can Nick Richards’ next step be?

Kentucky’s five-star big man showed promise, but ultimately underperformed in his freshman season.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

In Nick Richards’ freshman season, he unsurprisingly proved himself to be apart of what may be a dying breed of big men: He’s big, he’s bulky, and he only plays close to the basket.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, when you prove that you can excel in that role, you bring to your team what few other teams in the country have these days. For Richards, his freshman year featured a glimpse of his ability to give Kentucky a leg up down low ... but it was really only a glimpse.

We cannot deny that Richards has plenty of talent. He was a five-star recruit out of Manhasset, New York, and ranked the No. 2 center in the 2017 class. Through the course of his freshman season, he showed an ability to do everything you would expect from a big man that’s lacking in versatility: he showed strength on the boards, an ability to protect the rim on one end, an ability to assault the rim on the other end, and an ability to run the pick and roll as the roller.

The issue was he didn’t show these things consistently. Averaging just 5.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game his freshman year, Richards wasn’t lighting up the statsheet on a regular basis. But he was known for the occasional big day.

Example: he went off for 25 and 15 against the Fort Wayne Mastodons early in the year, his only double-double of the season. He also put up 10 and eight against Monmouth, as well as 10 and six against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Granted, those last two games don’t really jump off the page. But for a guy who operates almost exclusively in the paint, and who will probably never shoot a single 3-pointer at Kentucky, you can’t expect a lot of scoring. From a guy like Richards, the most you can expect is a double-double.

And despite his lack of point production, he was at least efficient. He had the highest field goal percentage on the team, as he shot 62 percent in his freshman year. He impressed in a few other categories statistically as well, finishing second on the team in blocks with 33 and shooting 72 percent from the free-throw line ... not terrible for a center.

This all makes Richards sound great, and I truly think he has the potential to be great. But the reality is his freshman year was far from great. Despite the rebounding ability he showed at times, he finished fifth on the team in rebounds per game.

And when he was off his game, it almost seemed as if he just wasn’t prepared. It’s not hard to find footage of him losing rebounds, missing putbacks, failing to use the frame he has effectively or getting lost among defenders down low after rolling off a screen on the pick and roll.

The positive to his issues is that they seem fixable. As I said before, the promise is there, and Richards will have a great role if he can carve one out for himself. With all the guard talent that Kentucky is adding over the next couple years, they could really use a big man with a defined position who draws attention into the paint.

And that brings me to the headline question: How big can Richards’ next step be?

Frankly, it could be huge. He’ll have the right situation to be a force down low (depending on how John Calipari runs his rotation next year). And the best part for Richards is that he won’t have to light up the box score to make a big impact.

Putting a 10-and-10 (or even a 10-and-8) center down low with Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans (maybe?) and Keldon Johnson working the perimeter would open Kentucky’s offense up and leave huge holes in opponents’ defense.

Maybe Richards needed a year to adjust. Maybe he needed to get used to the physicality of the college game. Either way, he’s a physical presence that Kentucky needs performing at his best in order to help the offense (and bring an intimidating defensive presence.

If he brings that in 2018, he becomes a catalyst for Kentucky’s offense.

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