LEXINGTON, Ky. — Were John Calipari to assemble a perfect center, it might look a lot like 5-star Kentucky freshman Nick Richards: 7 feet tall, 245 pounds, 7 percent body fat, a 7-5 wingspan, strong enough to bench press 185 pounds 15 times and nimble enough to leap 36 inches off the ground and sprint three-quarters of a basketball court in 3.37 seconds.
Not much needs fixing on that body. So, Richards’ underwhelming start to this season for the Wildcats must be about what is between his ears, right? Calipari thought so, and he put the big man in touch with Dr. Bob Rotella, a renowned sports psychologist.
Richards and Rosella spoke on the phone for 30-45 minutes before UK’s game against Troy on Monday night, and it apparently unburdened Richards — or perhaps unleashed him.
“[Richards] said, ‘Man, that guy is really good, got me in the right frame of mind,'” Calipari said. “You can’t have the weight of the world on you and play this game. You gotta play like you got nothing to lose. That’s all I’ve been talking about to these guys.”
It couldn’t be as simple as an En Vogue lyric — Free your mind and the rest will follow — could it? Here’s all you need to know: Before speaking to Rotella, Richards had managed 16 points and 19 rebounds in 61 minutes this season. Since Rotella’s pep talk, he’s gone for 33 points and 23 rebounds in 38 minutes.
That includes a breakout game so unexpected that even teammates were surprised: 25 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in an 86-67 win over Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.
“[Rotella] basically just talked about how he’s been watching me play and I’ve been playing timid,” Richards said. “So, he just told me to play with a little more confidence, put a little more swag in my game and don’t worry about the score, don’t worry about how your stats are looking. Just go have fun.”
More specifically, Rotella said that when players sit around an arena for two or three hours before a game, it can become a mental drain.
“So, he told me, ‘Before the game starts, do not think about basketball,'” Richards said.
His solution: watching videos of a comedian on Instagram. Whatever works, right?
Richards arrived at Kentucky like so many others: stamped with labels that come with heavy expectations attached. McDonald’s All-American. Future first-round NBA draft pick. Millionaire in training.
Which is why one of Calipari’s biggest teaching points every year has nothing to do with basketball.
“Just relieving yourself from any type of pressure — NBA pressure or things you’ve been through, how hard you’ve worked, just thinking too hard. Just play like there’s not pressure,” sophomore Wenyen Gabriel said. “I think that’s a big reason why [Richards] played the way he did today. He came out and played like he played before he got here, in high school. He just let loose, keep the game simple.
“He used the things that he works on every day and he came out and just displayed it all.”
Because Richards has also been busy refining the physical aspects of his game, toiling before and after practices with the Wildcats’ big man whisperer, assistant Kenny Payne.
“Developing hook shots, as you can see. That’s basically my go-to move now,” Richards said. “My free throws, my mid-range jumpers, just how to read and react to certain plays, how to guard pick-and-rolls. A lot of late nights, early mornings, a lot of hours in the gym.”
Richards threw down high-flying dunks Wednesday, sure, but also had a nifty up-and-under bucket for a three-point play, swished an elbow jumper and sank more than one pretty jump hook.
He made 9 of 10 shots from the field and 7 of 7 at the free-throw line. It was a clinic. By the time he got back to the locker room, Rotella had texted to congratulate him — on the big game, yes, but this especially:
“I had fun,” Richards said. “Me and my team had fun tonight.”