The transformation was apparent from the beginning of UK’s preseason trip to the Bahamas.
Nick Richards — the sophomore center who struggled so mightily as a freshman — had a team-high 19 points in the Wildcats’ opening game that week, and he looked like a completely different player on the court.
A few weeks later, asked how he could build upon that trip and put a disappointing freshman season behind him, Richards said he just needed to use those four games as momentum. Learn from what he accomplished in the Bahamas, and use that to help him figure out his role on this uber-talented Wildcats team.
What has John Calipari, who stuck by Richards through the tough times last season, said about his role this time around?
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“Cal really just tries to tell his players to figure it out, and if you can’t figure it out he’ll tell you what to do,” he said.
Has Richards figured it out?
“Not yet. I’m just playing basketball,” he said. “Trying to be myself, man.”
That’s a good start, and this might be an entirely new Nick Richards.
Gone, he says, is the player who used to dwell on every mistake, let it eat away at him in a way that, ultimately, led to more mistakes and less time on the floor. The time on the bench resulted in more time thinking about what he’d done wrong to get there. It wasn’t a good mindset.
“I’ve always had that problem,” Richards said. “Even off the court. I would make a mistake, and it would just be in my mind for hours. Maybe even days. I would just continue to think about it. And it’s just one of those things that I’ve outgrown. I don’t really care about mistakes anymore. It’s just something that I don’t remember anymore.”
He did a lot of thinking, a lot of remembering, a lot of dwelling last season.
The five-star freshman began the season as the Cats’ starting center, a highly touted player with even higher upside and — at the time — realistic dreams of being a one-and-done lottery pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
He scored 10 points in his first game, logged 25 points and 15 rebounds against Fort Wayne two weeks into the season, and showed flashes of that talent throughout the early part of the schedule.
As the season wore on, Richards wore down. The mistakes multiplied, his playing time diminished, and the negative thinking haunted him. He never scored more than two points over the Cats’ final 10 games. He played more than nine minutes just once in that span.
Calipari never gave up on him. Neither did his teammates.
As many wondered why Richards was still starting — or even playing at all — the message from those who saw him every day at the Craft Center was one of hope. Calipari, the rest of UK’s coaches, and Richards’ teammates were hoping he’d turn that corner. They knew how good he could be. More importantly, they saw how hard he was working.
“We knew he was trying,” said PJ Washington. “He was in here every day. Worked the hardest out of all of us. Running a lot, doing hooks and jump shots as well. But he’s really bought into it. He’s really focused a lot more than what he has been. I’m just proud of him. I’m happy to see what he’s doing, and I’m just happy to play with him this year.
“His confidence is a lot better this year, as you could tell from the Bahamas. … When he gets the ball, we feel like it’s going in.”
And if it doesn’t, so what? Forget about it, and concentrate on the next opportunity.
That’s the mentality Richards wants to bring to the court this year.
Stay positive, and positive results will follow.
“I’ve had conversations with all of the coaches about that, but mostly I tried to have those conversations with myself,” he said. “Just try to talk to myself at night. In the back of my mind, ‘Try to be better than what you were today, tomorrow.’”
About this series
This is the first in a series of 13 stories featuring members of the 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Watch for all 13 in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.