Nick Richards sat expressionless on the couch in his girlfriend’s apartment in Lexington, KY listening to NBA commissioner Adam Silver call out names. He watched as newly-employed players, many of whom he’d played either with or against, walked up to the stage to realize their NBA dreams.
This had been Richards’ vision for himself as well, exactly where he and many others projected him after his freshman season at Kentucky.
Richards, who had just finished his freshman season, wasn’t upset at anyone in particular. The blame game was not his style. He was happy for his friends, like fellow McDonald’s All-American DeAndre Ayton and his Kentucky teammates Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, all of whom had been selected in the top 11 picks.
But Richards was also disappointed in himself. He was supposed to be in Brooklyn at the NBA Draft.
“It was a goal of mine to be drafted that year,” he said. “But it just didn’t go that way.”
“That was hard,” added Leah Edmond, Richards’ girlfriend for two-plus years and also the star of Kentucky’s women’s volleyball team. “I think that was the lowest point, the night of that draft. He couldn’t even watch the whole thing. We got up and left after the first round.”
He was supposed to be a one-and-done, even though he’d begun this journey as little more than a raw talent who’d received his first taste of organized basketball as a freshman in high school. The Jamaican big man moved to New York as a soccer fanatic, but also had experience with cricket, track and field events, volleyball and even swimming.
“I had no idea how to play basketball,” he said. “I’d see a court, and see a bunch of guys playing and hop in,” he said. “But that was it.”
But it didn’t take long for the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder to quickly make a name for himself nationally, a man among boys dunking ferociously on opposing big men all over the AAU circuit. He looked like a manchild, but his coaches would tell you something was different about Richards than many elite recruits.
There was no air of arrogance, no sense of entitlement.
“You’d take Nick out of the game, he shakes everyone’s hands and then asks me, ‘What do I need to do better?’” said Mike Rice, the controversial former Rutgers head coach who worked with Richards for a couple years in high school back in New Jersey. “All the other five-star guys would come out the game and ask me why the heck I took them out.”
“Nick doesn’t really have that swagger, that overconfidence,” Rice added. “He’s grounded, he’s nice, he’s thoughtful. He’s probably too nice.”
Richards was also trying to play catch-up with the kids who had been playing basketball since they were in elementary school. Sure, he was blessed with incredible size and athleticism, but Rice had to teach him the basics and start basically from scratch.
“He was in the infant stages of his development,” Rice said.
Everyone could see the potential. It wasn’t just his size and ability to run and jump, but his footwork, ability to defend guards on the perimeter and his willingness to be coached. All the high-majors were in pursuit when he was coming out of Patrick School in New Jersey, but he opted to play for John Calipari in Lexington, furthering the belief that he’d only spend one season in college. Calipari was the king of the one-and-done, and there was no way a physical specimen such as Richards would have to stick around in Lexington for more than a season.
He was a part of a star-studded Kentucky recruiting class in which seven of the eight players were ranked in the top 35 nationally. Five, including Richards, earned a spot in the prestigious McDonald’s All-American Game. Richards is now the lone player left in Lexington from that group.
Richards would start 37 games as a freshman, but those were pretty much the only gaudy numbers he posted. He was eighth on the team in scoring (5.1 ppg), fifth in rebounding (4.4) and eighth in minutes played (14.7).
It wasn’t what he — or anyone for that matter — envisioned. Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington were receiving the majority of the minutes at the forward spots and Richards was fighting with Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt and Sacha Killeya-Jones for the remaining frontcourt minutes.
Richards didn’t test the draft waters, but those around him say he also didn’t pout. He stepped up his offseason workout regimen to hopefully avoid a repeat performance of his freshman year and regain some of the confidence he’d lost during a disappointing year. Richards entered his sophomore year feeling ready.
Enter Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis.
With Travis in the fold, Richards’ minutes decreased (12.1), his modest scoring (4.0) and rebounding numbers (3.3) dipped, and now he wasn’t even starting. In the final game of the season, an overtime loss to Auburn, Richards played just 44 seconds. This time it was Travis and Washington who were clearly ahead of him while even frosh E.J. Montgomery had surpassed him in the rotation much of the season.
Richards insists the experience of being passed over in the lineup made him stronger.
“It was tough, but I looked at it as a way to get better,” Richards said of Travis joining the program. “He’s a big, strong guy and I took it as a challenge every day. I wanted to help make him better in practice every day and also improve my game.”
In spite of how his season ended, Richards put his name in for the NBA Draft and went through the process, being invited to multiple team workouts but knowing full-well, he says, that he wasn’t going anywhere. At the same time, most of Big Blue Nation wasn’t sure whether Richards was throwing in the towel after two years in Lexington, ready to move on to the pros or transfer and sit out a year in hopes of success elsewhere. Some Kentucky fans were even hoping Richards would leave to open up a scholarship for another McDonald’s All-American, someone who could be more than just a seldom-used reserve in Year 2.
“He had no choice, but he walked in and just said, ‘I’m coming back. I’m not testing the waters,’” John Calipari told Stadium. “The biggest thing is we’ve had a few guys leave and none of them have made it to the NBA. If you’re smart, you fight it out.”
But plenty of guys, not just in Lexington, don’t fight it out. Quade Green, who came into Kentucky in the same class as Richards, transferred to Washington in hopes of an expanded role. He’s now academically ineligible. Isaiah Briscoe declared for the draft after two years and is playing in Germany. Former UK big man Dakari Johnson turned pro after two underwhelming seasons, was drafted in the middle of the second round and is now in China.
But Richards went old-school and decided to stick it out, even knowing that there might be another frontline player coming in to challenge him for minutes. Kentucky was in the market for at least one more grad transfer (they wound up getting Bucknell’s Nate Sestina and then missing on Kerry Blackshear Jr.) to bolster what appeared to be an underwhelming frontline, and Richards was well aware of that.
It was P.J. Washington, who made a huge jump from his freshman to sophomore season and wound up being drafted in the lottery, who suggested that Richards go through the draft process to get feedback from NBA folks.
“Everybody has their own story. Just because I go to a school that’s known for one-and-dones doesn’t mean I have to be one-and-done,” Richards said following the win over Texas Tech on Jan. 25. “It took me time to develop. Over the past three years, I’ve had the best time of my life.”
Now a junior, Richards’ emergence has been one of Kentucky’s biggest stories. He’s in the best shape of his life, which has helped him get on the floor and remain on the floor. Less than a calendar year since he couldn’t get a full minute against Auburn, he’s been as dominant as just about any big man in the country. He’s averaging 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in the last nine contests.
Kentucky is 8-1 over that span.
Richards’ game has given Calipari and the ‘Cats a different dimension, one that – along with a perimeter of Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey – gives UK legitimate national title aspirations when that appeared far-fetched following a string of losses to Evansville, Utah and South Carolina.
His progress was evident late in the Saturday’s road win against Texas Tech. Richards was fouled and headed to the line for two critical, potentially game-winning free throws in the closing seconds. Quickley got in his face and told him to breathe. He wanted to help Richards focus.
Richards just looked at him, shook his head over and over with a clear sense of belief and repeated, “I got this. I got this.”
He knocked down both foul shots.
“He’s built his own self-confidence with how he’s played,” Calipari said. “He’s way more confident. It’s not about what a coach says or a teammate says. Demonstrated performance builds your confidence. You’ve got to get on the court and perform and that’s what Nick has done.”
Richards’ conditioning has been a significant reason for the jump in production, but equally as critical has been the mental aspect. Instead of trying to shrink to six feet after a mistake, as Mike Rice said was commonly the case, Richards’ body language is completely different these days. Now he’s throwing his shoulders back, puffing out his chest and unafraid to show raw emotion.
“We have a 7-footer who blocks shots, can rebound above the rim,” Calipari said. “The biggest thing he does for us is outrun big guys on both ends. He couldn’t do it when he wasn’t in shape, he couldn’t really catch the ball, either.”
“Now he’s to the point where he looks at people like, ‘I got this. Don’t worry.’ It’s a big-time change.”
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard called Richards a first-round pick prior to last weekend’s game against Kentucky and then reiterated the fact after Richards went for 25 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks — a stat line not seen in Lexington since the likes of Anthony Davis.
Multiple NBA teams have moved Richards back on their draft boards after the free-fall that had him as an afterthought entering the season.
“He’s very-much improved, has a good wingspan, and the thing I like most about him is that he plays hard,” said one NBA executive. “I think he’s worked himself back into the equation as a first-round pick.”
During his freshman season, Richards — like many McDonald’s All-Americans — was consumed by the NBA. But now he says he’s come to the realization that everyone runs their own race.
“I’m not thinking about the NBA or where I’ll be next year,” he said. “I’m just focused on this season.”
Meanwhile, Edmond has been able to check social media after Kentucky basketball games without squirming or becoming agitated about what people say about her boyfriend. In the past, she’d see comments from diehard UK fans imploring Richards to quit playing the game, and other mean-spirited posts after yet another on-court struggle.
Richards and Edmond are Lexington’s most successful couple these days, and are able to reap the rewards together. She’s a senior and plans to play volleyball overseas next season, so the pair will go the long-distance route with their relationship. They have already become accustomed to days apart when their respective teams go on the road, and that’s the reason why Richards bought her a german shepherd, Luna, for Christmas.
“I don’t ask him about the NBA,” Edmond added. “I don’t want him to think about it. We’ve still got work to do.”
When he enters the game now, Richards no longer hears a crowd peppered with moans and groans. Instead, he notices massive cheers from Big Blue Nation.
“It feels good to know that 20,000 are rooting for me,” he said.
And while his individual success is gratifying, there’s something far more important.
“My goal was always to come in here and win a national championship,” Richards said. “Me having all these numbers doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t result in a national title.”