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Junior Nick Richards has been everything the Big Blue Nation was hoping for

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It’s taken him longer than a lot of other high-caliber prospects under John Calipari, but so far this season, Nick Richards finally looks like the Nick Richards his head coach has been so excited about for so long.

Greg Goins - Sea of Blue

Scoring points doesn’t tell the entire story in a basketball game, especially when you’re a five-star big man playing for a team coached by John Calipari.

The “Anthony Davis took the fourth-most shots on that (2011-12) team” quote counter from Calipari is somewhere around 27,352 times at this point in his Kentucky tenure. The Harrison twins were the closers on the same team that included Karl-Anthony Towns, who has been setting the NBA on fire as arguably the league’s best center this season.

Big men aren’t required to help carry the offensive load in Kentucky’s offensive attack, but for this year’s bunch so far, it’s a good thing Nick Richards has because, uh ... it’s been a struggle through four games.

Here, let’s sum up how good (and important) Richards has been through the four games we’ve seen so far this season.

After his 21-point, 10-rebound performance against Utah Valley on Monday night, Richards had his second 20-point contest in four outings. Through 74 games in his previous two seasons combined, Richards had a grand total of two 20-point games with one in each of those two seasons.

Not bad for a guy that had doubts coming into the season in the short-term future with a nagging ankle injury and in the long-term future of the team because of his inability to make a real and consistent impact for the Cats.

“Nick may not be a three-point shooter,” Calipari told reporters after Monday’s closer-than-expected win against UVU, “but he may be — are you ready for this, folks? — our best shooter.”

Look, we know Calipari can be ... very Calipari at times ... but he sorta has a point here. Yes, it’s only four games and yes, he’s not shooting 3-pointers, but to his half-serious thought, here’s a look at Richards’ numbers:

  • 22-of-35 from the field (62.9 percent, tops on the roster)
  • 9-of-11 from the free-throw line (81.8 percent, sixth on the roster, but one of those guys in front of him is Johnny Juzang, who has taken just four freebies so far this year)
  • .659 TS% (1st), a .629 eFG% (1st) and only Nate Sestina’s 10.1 real box plus-minus (BPM) is higher than Richards’ 10.0. Richards trails Immanuel Quickley by 0.6 for the best offensive box plus-minus (OBPM) on the roster

It’s not fair to compare Richards to a better and different player like say, PJ Washington, but to further show Richards is becoming a better and more aggressive player like Washington did a season ago, it took until Jan. 5 in a loss to Alabama to open SEC play for Richards to reach 11 total free throws taken on the season. He’s hit that total before December started.

His percentage at the line will regress of course, but if you’re shooting more free throws (0.9 more per game), that means you’re touching the ball more and you’re being aggressive with said touches, which is what Calipari has wanted from him other than being a true defensive anchor in the middle.

“He’s my ‘big,’ and I’m his point guard,” Ashton Hagans said after Monday’s win, sounding like an extension of his head coach.

“And I’m going to do whatever it takes to get him going. For this team to be at its best, we’re going to need Nick every night. We’re just going to force-feed him and just let him go to work.”

Until the Cats get a little healthier and find their groove as a cohesive unit when their bigger non-conference games arrive on the schedule, Hagans might be right.

You hear me say this a lot, but it’s simple basketball. Pull a miss off the rim, push in transition, hit the big with good positioning on the right block and it’s an easy two.

More often than not, when Kentucky’s at their best under Calipari, they’re contesting shots and pulling those misses off the rim to push the ball in transition because like ESPN color commentator Jimmy Dykes says when he’s calling Kentucky games a lot of the time, teams are going to “shrink the floor” against the Cats, meaning there’s not going to be a lot of driving lanes for Kentucky’s guards/wings.

Possessions like these certainly make life easier for you. Sestina pulls down a long miss from the left corner and immediately looks to start the break with Hagans. The point guard pushes up to Tyrese Maxey, who makes the easy (and correct) read down to Richards, who uses that big frame and wingspan to score an even easier bucket.

Nick Richards is shooting baseline jumpers? Well, I’ll be damned.

Here’s some more on that floor shrinkage that Dykes mentioned early in the broadcast, but the thing to take note of here isn’t Richards taking and making a baseline jumper from further than 10 feet out.

Notice where the shot clock is when he shoots it.

Richards shot this ball with about 14 seconds on the shot clock. It’s in rhythm and it’s with plenty of space between him and his defender after Maxey’s path to the basket got closed off, but when have you ever seen Richards shoot with 14 seconds on the shot clock from outside the paint? That’s what work and confidence can do for a player.

He’s a Division-I player on a title-contending team. He should be able to make those jumpers. We all understand that. But, Richards hasn’t had the most orthodox path to where he is right now in the program, so even small things like this can add up over time.

(Just a little nugget for the road: the final four points of the half for Kentucky that put them up eight at the intermission came on four made freebies from Richards.)

You reward the big fella for a sequence like this one and that’s what Ashton Hagans did.

Who doesn’t love a good big man sequence? This was probably the best 20 seconds of action from Richards all night on Monday. When you defend on one end, you get rewarded on the other and that’s what happened here.

Richards gets switched onto the smaller guard with half of the shot clock gone far away from the basket, but does a good enough job moving his feet, staying in front and then on the drive, allowing himself to seemingly drag behind onto the hip to allow himself more room to operate and shy away from a foul call on a potential block attempt, which forces a tough shot (and miss).

But, there’s more. Just like he did on the earlier hook shot — and what he’s been good at despite his previous struggles — Richards gets out in the open floor to run and see Hagans bringing the ball up down the right side. The big fella drifts right, sets the quick show-and-go screen and Hagans delivers a pretty pass to Richards for the easy slam.

Always reward the big man when he runs.

(To that point, it’s almost a half-transition bucket for the Cats here. What I mean by that is look how quickly they pushed yet again off the miss and fast Hagans and Richards executed this side pick-and-roll with ease. You’re not going to go full 1990 UNLV for 40 games, but running is what Calipari’s teams do and possessions like these need to happen more often to ease some of the early offensive woes.)

Random sidebar that I took note of that just so happened to include a Richards bucket:

This is what Kentucky should look like in the half-court against the 2-3 zone. Keion Brooks Jr. is the perfect piece to put in the middle of the floor.

Kentucky will probably see the 2-3 zone look more than anybody else in the country other than Syracuse, who run it in their sleep even though #ZoneIsForCowards.

This is what it should look like to me personally. Juzang and Kahlil Whitney are capable shooters with Whitney being more of an aggressive slasher, while Keion Brooks is the perfect piece to put in the middle of this look because not only did he move the ball quickly in this look, but he’s more than capable of shooting this jumper from the nail when given the space.

Here’s what happened out of this, though:

Get the ball to the middle. Move the ball quickly. Find the mismatch. Score.

With better execution on Hagans’ part (who had a fine game on Monday), they really could’ve shown another way to score by driving the middle of the zone, too:

He’s not nine-feet-tall, Ashton.

The point with this is that Richards is continuing to get to good spots on the floor and truthfully, getting more comfortable being on the floor on the offensive end. The Cats are putting him in positions on the floor where he’s not crowded and can basically spread his wings a bit. There’s no congestion with EJ Montgomery taking up space as the other forward, although he can shoot from outside the paint on occasion. (That’s partly where Sestina plays a key role, plus Cal using more three- and four-guard lineups.)

Kentucky has plenty of things to figure out and some guys to bring along here in the next few weeks before the schedule ramps up, but getting what they’ve gotten out of Nick Richards has been a welcoming sight.