Meet the Wildcats: Doubters fuel Richards’ drive

Special thanks to Papa John’s for presenting this year’s Meet the Wildcats series.

The 2017-18 season is fast approaching, and head coach John Calipari’s latest top-ranked recruiting class features seven fresh new faces. Over the next several weeks, CoachCal.com will profile each of Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with an episode of the Behind Kentucky Basketball podcast, as well as a video of each player playing a game of Horse against either Kentucky basketball great Rex Chapman or Hollywood actor and Kentucky basketball superfan Josh Hopkins. The 2017-18 series continues with Nick Richards, an athletic 7-foot forward whose motivation and drive are fueled by doubters.

N
ick Richards does not like it when people doubt him or his abilities. He uses others’ pessimism as motivational fuel. And he has a full tank.

You see, the 7-foot Richards is new to this whole game of basketball.

As a young kid, Richards enjoyed skateboarding. He didn’t get experienced enough to skate on a halfpipe, but he could do kick-flips, ollies and pop-shove-its.

He also loves soccer. His favorite athlete, regardless of sport, is Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese striker who has claimed the Ballon d’Or award, presented to the world’s top player, four times. When Real Madrid, his favorite team, faced Barcelona in El Clásico, Richards was glued to the TV. He even ordered a Real Madrid jersey recently.

As a teenager, Richards left his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, for Queens, New York. Replacing the trees, heat and mountains for pavement, frigid winters and skyscrapers, Richards was in a new world.

It was somewhere around this time that he first began playing basketball. Obviously, he was a bit behind his peers, who began playing ball since they could walk, but he made up ground in a hurry. Unlike many of those peers, it wasn’t love at first sight between he and basketball.

“My first year, I didn’t really – it was just a hobby, just like skateboarding was just a hobby for me. I think it was my junior year I just saw that I could do something with this,” Richards said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “When you see something that can happen you put your mind to it, you start working on it every day. If you hate it, you hate it, but if you fall in love with it, you just keep doing it. I just fell in love with it.”

Bio Blast

Position: Forward
Date of birth: Nov. 29, 1997
Parents: Marion Richards
Hometown: Kingston, Jamaica
High school: The Patrick School
Nickname: Big Nick
Twitter: @iamnickrichards
Instagram: @nickrichards_
Favorite TV show: Dragon Ball Z
Favorite food: Pasta, mashed potatoes and ribs
Favorite superhero: Ironman
Favorite player: Anthony Davis and LeBron James (favorite athlete is Cristiano Ronaldo)
Favorite sport/hobby outside of basketball: Skateboarded when younger
Favorite movie: The Blind Side
Favorite musical artist: Drake

The big man certainly has been a quick study.

Entering high school as a 6-foot-10 beanpole weighing somewhere between 180 and 190 pounds, Richards arrives at Kentucky at 240 pounds.

“I was weak, couldn’t hold my own on the block. Couldn’t get a rebound,” Richards said of his early days on the hardwood. “Everybody was stronger than me. As the years went on, I just kept on getting better.”

Aiding his drive to get better and better was the continual doubt of others.

“That’s one of the reasons I play basketball right now,” Richards said. “People told me I couldn’t do anything with it. People told me I was going to be a D-3 player when I was a freshman. Now I’m at Kentucky.”

Now Richards keeps that doubt and pessimism close to his heart. Literally.

In July, Richards got his first tattoo. It’s a simple message that stretches across his chest: Be somebody that nobody thought you could be.

“There’s something inside of me,” Richards said. “I don’t like when people tell me I can’t do something.”

He played his high school ball at the Patrick School in New Jersey, the same school – then known as St. Patrick’s – as Kentucky star forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. As a senior, Richards didn’t put up the typical jaw-dropping stats of many other Kentucky signees – 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game – but he was still named the NJ.com Player of the Year in New Jersey.

Why?

His sheer presence on the court altered games and opposing teams’ plans. The bigger the moment, the more Richards seemed to shine. He led his team to the New Jersey Tournament of Champions title, posting 26 points and 11 rebounds in a semifinal win.

Nick Richards recently got a tattoo that helps explain his mindset when it comes to basketball: Be somebody that nobody thought you could be. (photo by UK Athletics)

Going to a school with so many other talented players and at a place with such great history gave Richards perspective, which should help him in a similar situation at Kentucky.

“Most elite high school kids can take however many shots they want in high school,” Richards said. “My coach disciplined me and told me to think about the team first. It’s always team first. And I think that just made me more humble. I appreciate him for that.

“We won, but I couldn’t do it without my teammates or my coaches. When you got guys where your bench is 10 deep, that really helps you.”

Along with his current teammates in Lexington, Richards has been putting in the work to get ready for his upcoming freshman campaign. The grind is nothing he shies away from. He embraces it. The late-night workouts at Kroger Field. The early-morning sessions at Nutter Field House. The pick-up games at the Joe Craft Center. Richards wants it all.

“I never shy away from putting in work in basketball,” Richards said. “From working late nights. Even when I’m tired – you see me dead tired – I don’t want to stop. I just want to keep going.

“I think if it wasn’t for my work ethic I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for haters I wouldn’t be here either.”

The hard work and determined drive make Richards’ rapid ascension to basketball stardom more understandable. Still, to go from a 15-year-old picking up a ball and playing competitively for the first time to a five-star Kentucky basketball player a few short years later is remarkable.

“I think if it wasn’t for my work ethic I wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for haters I wouldn’t be here either.” – Nick Richards
Don’t expect Richards to sit back and reflect on his journey though.

“I know within myself I can do way more,” he said.

Entering college, Richards is known more as a defensive stopper than an offensive juggernaut. His athleticism allows him to be a nightmare in pick-and-roll situations, catching lobs and finishing at the rim. Defensively, he’s a rim protector and shot blocker, perhaps the truest one Kentucky has had since the days of Willie Cauley-Stein.

He’s more than just that though. One of his goals is to show people more of his offensive game, but only as it aligns with helping the team win. As he said, if it takes “three points, 20 rebounds and seven blocks” to win a game, he’s more than happy to oblige to that stat line.

Coach Cal likely wouldn’t mind those numbers either.

At Kentucky, Richards’ offensive and defensive games will both have opportunities to flourish thanks to the other players’ versatility and position-less nature.

Offensively, the quartet of Wenyen Gabriel, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt will stretch defenses, giving Richards more one-on-one matchups. On the other side, Richards’ ability to block shots and defend the paint allow all the Wildcats to be a bit more aggressive defensively around the perimeter.

And if that combination comes to fruition there shouldn’t be many doubters left for Richards.

“We’re just going to shock the world,” he said.