By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky junior center Nick Richards’ dramatic improvement this season has been one of the biggest story lines with UK basketball and also a national story as his play has helped UK climb back into the top 10 this week for the first time since its loss to Evansville.
Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne has helped turn Richards into a double-double machine after he struggled to consistently play to the level coach John Calipari thought he could his first two years.
For Payne, it reminds him of the growth path that former Cat Willie Cauley-Stein took and is now in his fifth year in the NBA.
“The fact that year one he (Cauley-Stein) was really good. Nick probably wasn’t as good. And when I say good (I mean) defensively. Willie was off the charts feet wise. He could move his feet with anybody,” Payne said Tuesday. “Year two, Willie came in and said at the beginning of the year, ‘KP, I think I want to leave at the end of this year (for the NBA).’”
Payne told him he couldn’t make the job to the NBA as a one-dimensional defensive player and that he had to develop confidence in some type of offense.
“Well that was in November. We leave to go to the NCAA Tournament and there’s a note on my wall. Well, the wall is closed. ‘I’m coming back for year three because of what you said in November.’ So that transformation to his junior year, he was the sixth pick in the draft,” Payne said.
“So, when I think about Nick, I think about how much he’s concurred mentally but how far he has to go as well. So, yeah, I’m pleased. But by no stretch of the imagination has Nick Richards reached how good he can be. He still has a lot of blocks, mentally, that he has to overcome.
“But a 7-footer that runs like that, that has the ability to shoot the ball like that, that jumps elbows at the top of the square, he has physical gifts that are off the charts. His only issue is how he perceives those physical gifts. It’s not skill wise. There’s a lot left in him.”