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How Juniors have fared at UK under John Calipari

Nick Richards joins a short but solid list of players who have returned for their junior season.

Buffalo v Kentucky Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Back in May, Nick Richards announced that he would be returning for his junior season in Lexington.

This was big news for the Kentucky Wildcats, as Richards joined Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina and EJ Montgomery as the only three big men on next year’s roster.

As the third/fourth big man on the team last season, Richards averaged averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game as well as blocking a team-high 47 shots. While his per-40 numbers paint a much better picture, it’s hard to tell how Nick will do with a dramatic increase in playing time.

Richards joins a short but solid list of players who made it to their junior season at UK under John Calipari.

Let’s take a look at how the others fared.

Willie Cauley-Stein

WCS was easily the best three-year player under Calipari. He came into Kentucky as an unheralded, four-star prospect and was immediately thrown into the fire when Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury.

He was raw offensively, but looked like a star on the defensive end of the floor. An injury that sidelined Cauley-Stein for the final three games of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, including the national championship, likely prompted the 7-footer to return for his third season in Lexington.

And what a great decision it was. WCS turned into a consensus first-team All-American in 2014-15 on a UK team that reached the Final Four with a 38-0 record. He finished his career second on UK’s all-time blocked shots list with 233 behind only Jamaal Magloire’s 268 blocks.

He ended up being taken No. 6 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings and has averaged 10.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in four seasons with Sacramento.

Dominique Hawkins

Kentucky’s 2013 Mr. Basketball had a huge impact at UK. The 6-0, 190-pound guard was elite on the defensive end for the 2014 NCAA runner-up team. In his junior season, he was the hero of UK’s 75-73 win over Louisville, scoring 13 points, including UK’s final five.

And finally, in his senior season, Hawkins put it all together, earning All-SEC Tournament honors. He went on to hit 12 of 17 shots and scored 35 points in UK’s four NCAA Tournament games.

A lot of people think of Hawkins as a Kentucky kid who sat on the bench for three years along with another name on this list before finally getting his chance his senior year. That simply was not the case.

After graduating from UK, Hawkins has played professionally in Estonia, where he has averaged 13.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists for Repla BS during the 2018-19 season.

Marcus Lee

The 6-9, former McDonald’s All-American came into Kentucky with a loaded class. The injury mentioned above that likely brought WCS back to Lexington for his junior season is the same injury that propelled Marcus Lee into Kentucky basketball lore.

In a thrilling 75-72 victory over the Michigan Wolverines to propel Kentucky to its 16th Final Four appearance, Lee put up 10 points, eight rebounds (seven offensive), and two blocks in just 15 minutes. Everyone remembers the Aaron Harrison buzzer beater, but Lee’s performance was one for the ages.

As a junior, Lee averaged 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds, while blocking 58 shots before declaring for the NBA Draft, withdrawing his name, and transferring to California.

In one season for the California Golden Bears, Lee averaged career highs of 11.7 points and 7.2 rebounds, to go with 52 blocks. This past season, Lee averaged 8.4 points and 6.5 rebounds for the NBA G League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Alex Poythress

The former five-star recruit out of Clarksville, Tennessee, was one of the most polarizing players of the Calipari era. While he ended up being a fan favorite to most, still there were others that begged for him to simply not disappear on the court. And it was frustrating.

As a sophomore, Poythress helped UK to the 2014 NCAA title game. However, despite being expected to take a huge step forward in 2015, he was limited to just eight games due to a season-ending knee injury. The 6-8, 230-pounder was likely the missing piece for No. 9 that year.

Nevertheless, Poythress became the first four-year player at Kentucky that was signed by Calipari out of high school, as he finished his UK career with 966 points and 597 rebounds.

He went undrafted upon graduating from UK, but he has now played 52 career games in the league over the past three years, having spent time with the Philadelphia 76ers (six games in 2016-17), Indiana Pacers (25 games in 2017-18) and Atlanta Hawks (21 games in 2018-19).

Derek Willis

Willis will go down as one of the most special players of the Cal era. The first in-state player signed by Calipari at Kentucky, Willis played only 114 minutes combined in his first two seasons at UK.

Unlike most, Willis chose to stick around and boy did it work out well. The 6-9 forward became a regular part of the rotation over his final two college seasons.

As a junior, Willis averaged 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds. He then followed that up as a senior by averaging 7.0 points and 5.4 rebounds to help UK reach the Elite Eight.

After graduating from Kentucky, Willis averaged 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds for Grand Rapids Drive in the NBA G League in 2017-18. This past season, he has averaged 12.1 points and a team-high 5.0 rebounds for German pro team BG Goettingen.

Nick Richards isn’t guaranteed success by coming back for his junior season at UK. He’ll be 22 years old by the time next year’s NBA Draft rolls around and it’ll get harder and harder for him to carve out a pro career.

However, developing under Coach Cal for three years, especially after being so raw coming into college, Richards has the opportunity and potential to take a huge leap forward next season.