The Once and Future Jump

How Good Is Josh Richardson Now, And How Good Can He Be?
Issac Baldizon
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

Josh Richardson could win a Pulitzer Prize, a Golden Globe, an Academy Award and be knighted by the Queen of England all in the same day and five minutes after it was all said and done he would probably shrug, smile and go on with his life as if nothing had happened.

Such is Miami’s do-it-all wing who scores the game-winning layup against the Utah Jazz with five seconds remaining and twenty minutes later aw-shucks-es his way through a post-game interview that would almost lead you to forget he was even on the court.

It’s all so matter of fact, Richardson so bemused at the attention, that you almost forget to take things seriously. But we have to, because if Richardson keeps playing like this the league is going to have to take him very, very seriously.

“He’s ready for the next jump,” Erik Spoelstra said. “The jump is ready for him. It’s just a matter of when.

“It’s just a matter of when he's going to step up and just grab it.”

The 40th pick in 2015, Richardson’s numbers aren’t going to jump off the page at anyone. After a strong preseason, as encouraging a preseason as he could have realistically had, Richardson struggled through most of the first six weeks of the season – at least offensively. Yet since December 1st he’s scoring 17.7 points a game on 48 percent from deep, while using 20 percent of the team’s possessions with 66.1 true-shooting.

“It’s an NBA season,” Richardson said. “It never goes like you want it to go. I try not to get down on myself after the preseason, I try not to get too high, start feeling myself during the preseason, I just try to stay kind of even and I think that’s been great for me.”

Those December numbers probably have your attention, which means it’s a good time to remind you that Richardson’s rookie season was essentially 52 games of the same type of performance. The difference is in the usage. Preceding an injury-plagued sophomore season, Richardson used only 13 percent of Miami’s possessions while playing the sharpshooter on a veteran-laden playoff team. That was encouraging enough for a second-round pick – any team in the league can use a shooting, defending wing – but this last month has been a step beyond the role Richardson had once carved out for himself.

It’s not quite leading-man level, with Spoelstra’s lineups down the stretch against Utah geared toward maximizing the abilities of Goran Dragić with shooters surrounding him, but he’s putting his name at the top of the movie poster.

That Spoelstra called for Richardson to get the ball in those final seconds should tell you plenty.

“I didn’t even think that was coming,” Richardson said. “[Spoelstra] drew it up for me and I was kind of surprised. But I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s great. Let’s go.’”

The bursting, outstretched layup he scored with probably wasn’t a surprise for anyone who has been watching this year. In returning from a knee injury last season, Richardson admits he never quite got the same lift back in his right leg, not to mention the mental hurdle of leaping in traffic having hurt himself doing just that. After an offseason of physical training, Richardson showed up during preseason with new moves in the paint, particularly the quick, scooping layups around the rim designed to flummox shotblockers.

Shots like this.

After shooting 59.7 percent at the rim his rookie year, mostly feeding off the creation of Dragic and Dwyane Wade, Richardson’s finishing numbers fell to 53.2 percent last season. Now, he’s up to 64 percent.

“That’s 10,000 hours and an unbelievable amount of reps, over and over and over,” Spoelstra said during preseason, long before the results started to come in.

The finishing is on the rise. The three-point shooting, while unlikely to stay at the same levels of the past month, should never be a concern. But there’s also a mid-range game on display that’s directly related to his increased usage. Spot-up shooting doesn’t do much for you if you have the ball in your hands. Where Richardson’s value is truly spiking is in the mid-range.

Once a spot-up specialist, Richardson has been taking 3.4 shots off the dribble a game since the start of December. Better yet, his effective field-goal percentage (factoring in the value of threes) on those shots is 60.2 percent across those 16 games. Dribble pull-ups will never be the most efficient option on a given possession, but the threat of them forces defenses to play you straight up. At the end of games, the proper math, and proper shots, matters less because you don’t have games and weeks and seasons for that math to play out. Sometimes you just need a score, and when the opponent knows that you have Derrick Favors stepping up on Richardson in the final seconds of a one-point game, giving up the deciding driving lane.

And if Richardson is going to hit 54.5 percent of his mid-range shots, as he has since December 1st, then the proper math might not apply so much to him. After talking about emulating Michael Jordan for his mid-range game this past summer, Richardson could be efficient where the vast majority of the league is not.

Getting this far without really talking about defense is akin to making a Star Wars movie without a lightsaber. We can focus on the scoring because he’s been so efficient of late, but Richardson is his defense, and that defense might be some of the very best in the league.

Not all the numbers fully agree. Richardson is 27th among small forwards in Defensive Real Plus Minus, but he also wouldn’t be the first strong defender to rank lower in that statistic – Avery Bradley, considered widely to be one of the league’s better on-ball defenders, is 74th among shooting guards this year. If you place Richardson’s rating among shooting guards, he’s 14th.

Among all players 6-foot-6 or shorter, Richardson is allowing the lowest field-goal percentage in the league (54.5 percent) when defending at the rim. He’s currently one of 50 players 6-foot-6 or shorter, ever, to post a block rate over two percent, regularly chasing down shots in the paint. Of the 98 players that defend at least 10 shots per game, Richardson is allowing just 38.6 percent shooting – the lowest mark in the league among all players. And in typical Heat fashion, he’s just as good at denying the ball as he is at defending it.

There’s room for improvement, always is, and those perimeter defense numbers can be a little finicky, but you can’t scoff at anyone being the best in the league.

Put it all together and where is Richardson, right now? A ball-moving, top of the line wing defender having his best season finishing at the rim while, over the past month, making nearly half of his threes and over half of his mid-range shots as he shoulders greater responsibility. An efficient, three-level scorer you can put on the opposing team’s best guard.

That’s a hell of a player. If he stays just that for the rest of his career, that’s a hell of a career. But, as Spoelstra says, there’s more there for the taking.

“I feel like the game is coming a little bit easier to me,” Richardson said. “I’m not really going a million miles an hour like I used to. I think it’s a testament to the work I put into it, getting older and time in the league. It takes a lot of time to figure out.”

That more, that next level, that figuring it out, is all about volume. Not just driving against a bent defense, but bending the defense yourself. More moves. More possessions. More shots. More against better defenders. Going from secondary to primary playmaker is one of the greatest, and also toughest, leaps you can make in the league. Even as the shooting numbers naturally cool off a bit, it’s possible.

That’s all what could be. What is, right now, is already very, very good.

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