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Miami Heat

Upcoming season crucial for Josh Richardson’s development

David Ramil

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Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson reacts after being called for a foul during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The Miami Heat don’t build the same way other teams do. Hence, they tend to devalue draft picks more than most, instead choosing to add players via free agency or trade.

So, when the rare second-round pick makes an impact, it’s not unlike finding a $50 bill along an empty street; you look around to see who it might belong to before quickly pocketing it and walking away smiling at your good fortune.

The 2015 NBA Draft capped a five-year period for Miami that highlights this perfectly. The team won two championships, made four straight trips to the Finals, and enjoyed an incredible level of success. During that span, the best player they selected was Norris Cole, a capable backup who wasn’t asked to do much on a superstar-laden team. Cole is now a veteran clinging to the outer fringes of life in the NBA just six years after being drafted. 

But the Heat would face the loss of LeBron James and then Chris Bosh, who missed half of the 2014-15 season due to a life-threatening ailment. The result was failing to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and the rare pick in the draft lottery.

Miami held the 10th selection in the 2015 draft and chose Justise Winslow. Thirty picks later, Josh Richardson was added to the fold.

While Richardson was tabbed as a solid player after four years at the University of Tennessee (and by some, a possible first-round selection), he was very much an afterthought. The Heat had acquired Goran Dragic the previous season, Bosh was returning from injury, Hassan Whiteside had developed into an elite rim protector, and Dwyane Wade still made South Florida his home.

There was also Winslow, who contributed top-level perimeter defense and “winning plays” that flashed his potential. As a rookie, he would earn significant playing time from head coach Erik Spoelstra. In the meantime, Richardson would spend the first half of the season traveling between the AmericanAirlines Arena and Sioux Falls, S.D., home of the Heat’s D-League affiliate. He only played in 23 of Miami’s first 53 games.

Undismayed, the rookie spent countless hours honing his 3-point shooting, with Spoelstra pushing him beyond his limits. Midway through that season, Richardson made enough of a leap to appear in 28 straight games for the Heat. He finished the season shooting a blistering 46.1 percent from behind the arc.

This was the found money no one expected.

The team was forced to rebuild yet again when Wade chose to sign in Chicago in 2016 and Bosh was ruled ineligible to play. But there was promise in their unforeseen youth movement, with Winslow and Richardson expected to continue developing and perhaps take a star turn. Winslow was beset by multiple injuries and played in just 18 games last season. Richardson faced similar issues but still appeared in 53 games. However, it seemed as though he’d taken a step in the wrong direction.

Richardson is slated to make $1.47 million this upcoming season, the last year on the deal he signed as a rookie. He has become eligible for a contract extension and The Miami Herald reported earlier this summer that the Heat have expressed an interest in doing just that. According to the Herald’s Barry Jackson, Miami can offer as much as a four-year extension worth $41 million. Perhaps found money doesn’t come cheap.

Still, there are questions about what kind of player Richardson can potentially become and the subsequent follow-up as to how much he might be a worth. At 6-foot-6 with a 6-10 wingspan, Richardson has the length to play and defend any number of positions. During his rookie season, he played primarily at shooting guard, nearly 84 percent of the time, per Basketball-Reference.com. The following season, with Dragic, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson entrenched in the backcourt, Richardson played 84 percent of the time at either forward spot.

Tracking his position du jour is not an ideal way of estimating Richardson’s development this season, especially as the league-wide trend de-emphasizes these traditional labels. It does, however, help determine what kind of lineups Richardson will play the bulk of his minutes. The backcourt is likely set, considering the return of Dragic, Waiters, Johnson, sharpshooter Wayne Ellington and even Rodney McGruder, who started at forward in Winslow’s absence but, at a sturdy 6-4, gives up considerable height as a wing.

Moreover, Richardson’s forays at guard during his rookie year were all but eliminated last season, mostly because he proved to be an unspectacular playmaker. His assist numbers did slightly increase (from 1.4 to 2.6 per game), but so did his turnovers (0.7 to 1.2 per game). Many of his turnovers follow a similar pattern – dribbling into traffic, forcing a pass, or simply winging it to the roll man before they have their hands or feet set.

Per NBA.com, Richardson ranked in the 32nd percentile as the ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations, yielding just 0.72 points per possession: 

 

As a scorer, Richardson is an equal-opportunity shooter. Last season, he attempted 121 shots 0-8 feet from the rim, 165 attempts from mid-range and 226 from 3-point range, per NBA.com. His field goal rate dipped considerably as he battled injury, but he also looked like he was forcing things as Miami went through their early-season struggles. With the team lacking cohesion and consistency, Richardson looked uncomfortable and rushed initiating any offense.

 

Defensively, Richardson was very solid, combining length and speed to great success. He held opponents to just 41 percent shooting, nearly three percentage points less than their usual average. He has good anticipation and the wingspan to maximize it, even if he doesn’t block a lot of shots (just 0.7 per game). Instead, he stays low, moves his feet well, and uses active hands to break up a play. Watch here as he keeps pace with one of the league’s speediest guards, Washington’s John Wall, and knocks the ball loose while backpedaling: 

 

Richardson, frankly, is a good defender, decent scorer and subpar playmaker, not an ideal scouting report for someone looking to cash in this year. There’s the potential extension, which Jackson points out, could reach as much as $44 million. Richardson could also take a chance at restricted free agency, a move that hasn’t worked out for a number of players this offseason (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nerlens Noel, etc.)

Still, there’s no denying the tools are there, and Miami will have made a good investment whatever the price if Richardson can nudge his perimeter shooting closer to what it was in his rookie season. 

The issue with Richardson seems almost a psychological one. He makes some poor decisions at times but, overall, there’s a shaky confidence that can shoot him in or out of games. There are times when he’ll hang his head low after a missed jumper or turnover. Or, conversely, after a made shot, he’ll tap at his head and start talking to himself, almost as if self-delivering a pep talk.

Is there a solution to help Richardson take another positive step? The surprising answer might be to insert him into the starting lineup.

When Waiters went down with a season-ending injury late last season, Richardson started the last 12 games in his place. During the last six games, Richardson averaged 15.0 points, 2.3 steals, 3.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Whether it was a finally being injury-free, the team developing some consistency at long last or if his confidence was on the upswing – or a combination of all three – the point is Richardson was at his best.

Given Richardson’s penchant for catch-and-shoot opportunities (second-most on the team behind Ellington) and that 93 percent of his 3-point shots were assisted, it’s clear he needs to be surrounded by other playmakers. That’s where Dragic and Waiters come in. The duo was at their best in the second half of the year, perfecting a drive-and-kick game that propelled Miami’s 30-11 finish.

With both etched in as starters alongside Whiteside, the two “forward” spots are still up for grabs. There’s a strong case for the newly re-signed James Johnson to fill one spot; he thrived in this role late last season when the team needed every win for a playoff push that fell just short. Richardson – and not Winslow – should fill the other.

Winslow is undoubtedly a strong defender, but his shooting woes are well-documented. He’s still an excellent playmaker, and can lead the second unit in that capacity, playing alongside 3-point shooters like Ellington, Tyler Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. Richardson is the better shooter of the two, and would benefit from playing alongside established playmakers Dragic, Waiters and James Johnson. In fact, Richardson’s most effective five-man lineup last season was a very similar one that included Tyler Johnson instead of Waiters, posting a positive net rating of 22.9 points per 100 possessions.

There is a downside to starting Richardson, namely that you inherently limit Winslow’s playing time. Having missed most of last season, this upcoming one is crucial to see what kind of player he is. As a first-round lottery pick, the team is already invested in his future, one that could potentially be jeopardized if he played as a reserve, albeit a very good one. That’s the risk of having so few draft picks – the need to ensure they reach their potential takes an added urgency. That’s the cost of doing business the way Miami does but, given their success over the years, it’s not likely to change.

But part of reaching potential is in discovering a players’ best fit, and for Richardson that’s in the starting lineup. There’s little need for him to initiate offense with ball-dominant guards like Dragic and Waiters, or even skilled passers like James Johnson. He can wait along the perimeter for passes and put up more uncontested shots than ever before. And he can use his defensive acumen to continue running shooters off the perimeter (Miami allowed just 22.9 3-pointers per game, lowest in the league last season) toward Whiteside’s towering presence.

Found money is always great, but it always helps to spend it wisely. Inserting Richardson into the starting lineup is the best way of making sure he’s worth every penny.

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When not tending bar at the loneliest watering hole on Waiters Island, David Ramil occasionally writes about basketball and the NBA. His work has been published at The Cauldron, Hardwood Paroxysm, SB Nation, FanSided and others. You can follow him for rare insight at @dramil13 or if you're simply really bored.

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