Malachi Continues to 'Dream Big'

Find out how his mother's unique shooting drill and one-on-one battles against his father helped shape No. 23's basketball path.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

Without fail, the fluorescent-yellow ball would whiz across the master bedroom – back and forth, night after night – until the four-year-old prodigy completed the drill 100 times.

Rather than train her young son to hoist a basketball, Jacquie Richardson – a former point guard at Virginia State – created a unique exercise, in which the toddler would repeatedly simulate a jump shot by flicking a tennis ball into her outstretched hands.

“My mother played (basketball) all her life, and she’s the one who introduced me to the game,” said the Kings guard. “I used to shoot the tennis ball like a basketball, and my mom would catch it and throw it back to me. Sometimes, she made a hoop out of her arms. I was just getting the repetition down.”

By the time he’d grasp the Spalding leather, the future NBA Draft pick had already fallen in love with the game from watching Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson duel in the 2000 NBA Finals. Soon after, he’d be inseparable from a basketball, dribbling from one Hamilton Township, N.J. playground to another, and holding his own against nine-year-olds at the age of six.

“Growing up, a lot of my family played – whether it was just at a local park or competitively – and it was inherited in me,” he said. “I tried to take bits and pieces from a lot of guys, but in the end, I tried to be myself. I always watched my brother play, and I wanted to be better than him. I wanted to be the best in my family.”

Malachi would routinely square off against his father, Lewis, on the blacktop court in his family’s backyard and at nearby rec centers, until he finally came out ahead on the scoreboard as a sixth-grader. The 16-1 shellacking compelled the elder Richardson to pack away his high-tops for good.

“He shot all jump shots,” Lewis told Syracuse.com in 2014. “He made me feel old. He put me into retirement.”

Although Jacquie didn’t play her son one-on-one, she proceeded to be there for him every step of the way.

As part of their evening ritual throughout high school, the pair would spend hours inside Iron Mikes gymnasium at Trenton Catholic Academy, with Malachi – by then, a McDonald’s All-American – rising up for hundreds of jump shots and Jacquie corralling the ball after every swish or rare misfire.

With Division I Syracuse only a four-hour drive from his hometown, the decision to commit to the tradition-laden local school was easy. The decision to leave only a year later would prove to be much more difficult.

As late as mid-March, Richardson’s name was absent from many online mock drafts, partly because the up-and-down Orange narrowly secured an NCAA Tournament bid, and partly because of the freshman guard’s relatively-modest regular-season production – 13.2 points per game on 37.5 percent from the field.

“There was no huge radar on me because we weren’t winning as many games as we should’ve, so that was probably one of the biggest issues,” he said. “I think I had a pretty solid year, (but) when you’re losing, (NBA evaluators) are not really focused on you.”

But in a matter of weeks, local-radio whispers that the Parade All-American could sneak into the first round turned into national debates about his Lottery potential.

Richardson’s stellar NCAA Tournament run culminated with a breakthrough performance on March 27, 2016, when the 6-foot-6 phenom poured in 21 second-half points to vault Syracuse past top-seeded Virginia and into the Final Four. Facing Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the defiant scorer splashed an array of step-back three-pointers and practically scored at will on strong drives to the basket, at one point yelling, “They can’t guard me!” in the direction of his doubters.

After weeks of deliberation with his parents and rave reviews at the NBA Combine, the Midwest Regional’s Most Outstanding Player surprised many around him, including his head coach, when he opted for the Draft.

For a player with the mantras “Dream Big” and “Have Faith” tattooed on the inside of his biceps, the opportunity to test that tried-and-true flick of the wrist on the biggest level was impossible to pass.

“I felt it was time for me to go,” Richardson said. “I wanted to fulfill a dream and I did.”

For much of his first two pro seasons, the No. 22 pick in the Draft has rotated between Sacramento and Reno, where his quick, fluid shooting motion and off-the-dribble craftiness have been on full display.

As a rookie, he ranked ninth in the G-League in scoring (21.0 points per game) and knocked down two three-pointers per game at a 44-percent clip against high-caliber talent. Richardson picked up right where he left off during a four-game stint with the Bighorns this season, scoring a season-high 19 points, to go along with six rebounds, four steals and three assists against the Lakeland Magic on Dec. 6.

“That experience helped me a lot,” he said. “I just wanted to be a little bit more consistent, so that was probably my main focus. Guys there either play in the NBA or are trying to get there, so it’s very competitive. You want to put on your best showing no matter what.”

Although he’s played sparingly in short bursts in the NBA – missing the final two months of his rookie season with an untimely hamstring injury – No. 23 hasn't disappointed whenever Head Coach Dave Joerger has called his number.

Accustomed to coming through on the biggest stages, his signature first-year performances came against NBA Finalists: 12 points, three rebounds and a steal in 14 minutes against the Cavaliers on Jan. 25, followed up by 10 points, seven rebounds and two assists against the Warriors on Feb. 15.

As a sophomore, Richardson has upped his three-point accuracy to 32.1 percent, knocking down 2-of-2 attempts from long range against the Nuggets on Oct. 21 and Sixers on Nov. 9. In a recent victory at Philadelphia, he showcased his improved defense by holding Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons to four second-half points, while finishing with a team-high +17 plus/minus.

“I thought Malachi Richardson was super,” said Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger. “He’s a strong, strong guy and just tried to stay between (Simmons) and the basket. I thought Malachi very quietly had a terrific game.”

The New Jersey native – who added 20 lbs. of muscle to his wiry frame during the offseason – recognizes he needs to make the case for playing time each time he steps foot on the practice court or removes his warmups to sub into a game.

But for a 21-year-old who has never lacked self-confidence and is accustomed to endless hours of training since he was barely out of diapers, his ambitions of NBA prominence won’t be denied.

“I want to improve, I want to show I belong and keep getting better,” Richardson said. “I know I’m going to give it my all every time I step out on the floor. The biggest thing is that anything can happen, so you always have to be ready."

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