For Once, It's a Late Bloomer Leading Kentucky
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Jamaican big man is ready for a March Madness breakout.
By Ray Glier
Nick Richards’ mother is a breast cancer survivor, so the University of Kentucky center wore pink shoes in a recent game against Georgia during Coaches vs. Cancer Week in support of his mom. Richards’ pink shoes were particularly alluring for two reasons: He was the only player wearing pink, and those pink feet never stopped moving.
Up and down the court the 6-foot-11 Richards ran. He bounced around the lane looking for openings inside the defense, snatched loose balls, blocked out Georgia’s big men to grab rebounds and got himself in position for lob passes that turned into baskets, en route to a 20-point, eight-rebound night. He wouldn’t retreat, not once.
Those energized pink feet tell the story of how Nick Richards’ career — at last — has taken off at Kentucky. The rare junior star at college basketball’s preeminent one-and-done factory has become one of the country’s most effective players for the simplest of reasons: conditioning.
I took spin classes and I got to another level with conditioning.
“He put himself in great shape, so now he doesn’t surrender,” says Kentucky Coach John Calipari, explaining Richards’ emergence. Conditioning “makes you a power. It’s not going to happen overnight, though. It took Nick three years.”
Richards’ career has gone full hockey stick — flat for two years, then straight up. He’s putting up 14 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this year, after averaging 4.5 points in his first two seasons in Lexington. “I can play longer without getting tired,” Richards says. “It was a lot of bike work. I started it this past offseason. I took spin classes and I got to another level with conditioning.”
It is rare for a Kentucky player to make it to the third season and suddenly have an impact, given that the Wildcats usually take top high school talents and churn out NBA players in a single year. In the Calipari era, now in its 11th season, just six players, including Richards, have broken out late in this way.
Richards was not supposed to be a late bloomer. He was considered among the top 20 players nationally in high school basketball in 2017 and pegged as one-and-done because of his length and agility. “Each player is on their own timetable,” Richards says, without a hint of shame at not meeting out-sized expectations.
Richards repackaged himself. In high school he was this wondrous scorer. Three years into his college career, he is a workhorse. He is assertive, discourteous in the paint against other big men and shows no entitlement by demanding the ball. There are no off-balanced shots with an attitude, no dipsy-doodle moves around the hoop, a contrast to the UK freshmen who spin and jazz up the game.
If Richards seems like a squared-away guy, it’s probably because of his mother, Marion. He has seen up close the tyranny cancer can have over a person, and the fact that his career at Kentucky did not take off as expected is no comparison to his mother’s challenge to stay alive 10 years ago. He refuses to feel persecuted over his slow development.
“She’s given me a lot, taught me so much, how to be my own personality and not what others want me to be,” Richards says. “I get a lot of strength from her.” It’s why he had those pink shoes custom made with “Elizabeth,” her middle name, inscribed on the sides.
Besides a lack of conditioning, Richards’ slow development at Kentucky probably had something to do with his background. He did not play organized basketball until he was 14 years old. He lived in Jamaica and played soccer, cricket, and ran track and field. Richards would shoot a basketball once in a while in Jamaica, but even though he was tall, he was immersed in the island sports.
At age 14 and already standing 6-foot-9, he moved to the New York area to be closer to family and started playing pickup games on the hard top. Richards had no idea about schemes, he just tried to score as many points as possible. A coach from a private high school saw him play and offered Richards a scholarship. By the time he was a senior, he was a top college recruit.
Now, his game is finally in line with expectations. He has made his way onto some NBA draft boards, though predictions are for him not to be selected until the second round. NBA teams will be impressed by his devotion to rim protecting, rebounding and stickbacks.
Where conditioning really matters is with Richards running the floor after a long possession playing defense. When he runs out with the guards, the opponent has to chase him to the other end of the floor to make sure Richards does not get easy post position or a breakaway dunk. The defense becomes stretched out, leaving open spaces for Kentucky’s guards to shoot.
“He was the difference-maker in the game,” Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin said after Kentucky beat the Tigers, 71-59. “They got more from their ‘bigs’ than we did from ours. You hate to lose games, but you love to see a young guy grow like that as a junior in college.”
Richards’ game has limitations. He rarely shows a face-up jumper, probably because he is so dutiful to staying inside. Three-point heaves are out of the question (he has none in two-plus seasons). The NBA lately has followed the Golden State Warriors’ offensive model of keeping five players outside the lane, all of whom can shoot. But if the Philadelphia 76ers’ model of “go big and maul you inside” catches on, there could be more options for Richards.
As it is, those active feet have made Richards a difference-maker for a team with national title aspirations. They’ll be eye-catching in March, regardless of the footwear.