LEXINGTON, Ky. — Nick Richards knows the word everyone uses to describe him, and he even uses it to describe himself.
“I’m still pretty raw,” the Kentucky freshman admits. “This is my, what, fifth year playing basketball?”
Soccer and skateboarding used to be his things, “when I was a little bit younger and a lot shorter,” until he started sprouting toward 7 feet tall with size-16 shoes and quite literally outgrew both of them. Richards didn’t take up the only sport where being that big is valued until he moved from his birthplace, Jamaica, to the U.S. before his freshman year in high school.
“It really wasn’t all that fun,” he said of basketball, “because I was like 6-10, 185 [pounds], being pushed around. But after a while, I fell in love with the game, and after that, the rest is history.”
By his senior season, he was leading The Patrick School — alma mater of former UK star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — to a state title, winning Mr. Basketball in New Jersey and earning consensus 5-star ratings and an invitation to the McDonald’s All-American Game.
That’s a long list of achievements for someone to still be called “raw.” But it fits, and Richards knows it, because while he is an elite rim protector, his offense remains very much a work in progress. Work being the operative word.
“One guy that’s impressed me is Nick Richards. It seems like whenever I’m in [the gym] or I walk past the door, he’s always in here,” junior guard Dillon Pulliam said. “Whether it be with one of our coaches or a manager, he’s always in here working on his game, his post moves, his shooting ability.”
In addition to honing his craft to prove right the NBA mock drafts that have him going in the first round next summer, Richards said he’s putting in all of that extra time to prove wrong anyone who doubts him. And silence the voice in the back of his own mind.
“Whenever I have a little bit of a scared factor in myself — maybe I’m not good enough to be a Kentucky player, maybe I’m not good enough to do this — I come in here and I work out,” Richards said. “It’s not in my head. It’s just what I see on Twitter, what I see people talking about me on social media.”
Hopefully he stayed off the Internet after posting no points and no rebounds in just 12 minutes of an exhibition win over Morehead State on Monday night. Richards did block three shots in that short stint, a reminder of what he does best. He went for 10 points, 13 boards and 8 blocks in the Blue-White scrimmage, which is the best competition he’s faced so far.
Teammates say he’s so intimidating in the paint they often change plans upon seeing him lurking — although foul trouble is another real concern as the 245-pound Richards and his 7-foot-5 wingspan “doesn’t even try to be wild; he just hits everybody.”
Exactly the kind of thing you might expect from someone whose game is routinely described as raw.
“Offensively, I’m trying to tell him, ‘Just jump hook, man. Forget about watch this. Catch it, fake and jump hook,’ ” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “You try to make it simple and keep it simple.”
Spoon feed the basketball baby, in other words. But former Rutgers coach Mike Rice, who molded Richards over his final two high school seasons, believes a major (figurative) growth spurt is right around the corner.
“It’s scary,” Rice said. “He came into basketball late, so his basketball instincts aren’t there yet, but they’ve come on so much. No one moves like him. It’s unfair that a 7-foot kid moves like that.”
Richards has a 36-inch vertical leap and ran a faster three-quarter-quart sprint at UK’s pro day than point guard Quade Green. He also did a team-best 15 reps of 185 pounds on the bench press. No one is pushing him around anymore.
This summer, Richards got his first tattoo and the message stretches across his chest: Be somebody that nobody thought you could be.
“Nobody thought I was going to be a Kentucky player,” Richards said. “Nobody thought I was going to be a D1 player. That’s basically why I got it, just to [remind myself] to prove everybody wrong.”
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