By Brad G. Faye, Suns.com
Posted: Dec. 10, 2009
For most NBA players, possessing a sense of style on the court is a high priority. Some like Dwyane Wade play with a certain “flash” and like to display their superhuman acrobatic abilities whenever possible. Others like Kenyon Martin choose to exhibit their style through toughness, and take pleasure in making an opponent second guess whether or not taking the ball to the hoop is a good idea.
At first glance, when it comes to styles on and off the court, you couldn’t find two players on more opposite ends of the spectrum than Phoenix’s Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. While the former often relies on his body to provide the necessary athleticism it takes to elevate above the rim, the latter often sacrifices his on the hardwood below in hopes of grabbing a loose ball. Upon closer evaluation, however, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley have more in common than it appears.
Born and raised in Saginaw, Mich., Jason Richardson at one point looked as if he might be destined for a future with the Saginaw Spirit hockey team rather than with an NBA ballclub. While the shooting guard recalled playing a number of sports growing up, he said he appeared to be gravitating towards life as a hockey player until growing out of that phase – literally.
“I lived in a neighborhood where we played everything,” Richardson said. “My friends and I just loved sports in general, but for a while I was really sticking with hockey. Once my feet got too big for my ice skates, however, I decided it was time to turn to basketball.”
The increased focus on basketball paid off for Richardson, who when it came time to selecting a college, had the option to stay close to home and play for Michigan State. As a freshman, J-Rich helped the Spartans to their first NCAA Championship since 1979 and enjoyed an even bigger role with the team one year later, being named a finalist for both the Wooden and Naismith awards.
That summer, Richardson was taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. After spending his entire life in the arctic cold of Michigan, the high flyer was headed to Golden State where he would use his athleticism to capture NBA Slam Dunk crowns in 2002 and 2003 before ultimately helping the Warriors to the postseason for the first time in 13 years.
“That whole run was amazing,” Richardson said of the team’s eventual upset of the top-seeded Mavericks. “The way we came together in those last few months of the regular season to earn that final spot and then to make history like that, it was just incredible. It was definitely one of my top moments as an NBA player.”
Meanwhile, as Richardson was getting accustomed to life on the West Coast, a young Dudley was preparing to depart it. Born and raised in San Diego, Calif., when it came time for Dudley to choose a college in 2003, he ventured east to join the Eagles at Boston College.
“Basically, it was the best opportunity for me to play at the highest level in a good conference,” said the forward. “They had just lost a few players, so I knew it was a situation which would allow me to step in and play right away. I sat down with a few counselors and with my mom and decided this would be the best opportunity to reach my ultimate goal.”
While Richardson was making a name for himself with improbable dunks in prime time, Dudley was earning the nickname “Junkyard Dog” for his scrappy play which helped his team gain extra possessions. Ironically, what was perhaps Dudley’s best collegiate outing came against Michigan State, when he scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a nationally televised Eagles victory.
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After a senior season in which he was voted the 2007 ACC Player of the Year, Dudley became the 22nd overall pick in the NBA Draft, selected by Michael Jordan and the struggling Charlotte Bobcats. That same day, the Bobcats also pulled off a deal with the Warriors, who in a surprising move had agreed to send the fan-favorite Richardson to Charlotte. Just as he appeared to finally be playing for an NBA team on the rise in Golden State, Richardson discovered he was being sent to a team which was again in the early stages of rebuilding.
“It came as a surprise because we kind of thought they were going to keep that group together to see what we could do,” Richardson said. “We hadn’t really been playing together for long and good things were happening so fast, but these things happen. The team had some financial decisions to make, and it was a business decision and sometimes pieces have to be moved.”
While both Richardson and Dudley found themselves on the opening day roster for the 2007-08 Bobcats, each was entering the season with a completely different mindset. Richardson was trying to establish a new relationship with a new team after having finally gotten comfortable with his old one, while Dudley was attempting to learn the ins and outs of the pro game for the very first time.
The combination of players searching for identities along with a new head coach and several injuries, it was little surprise that Charlotte won only 32 contests that season and again found itself in the lottery. But rather than giving the group another full season together, the front office decided to look in a new direction. Within months, the team relieved Sam Vincent of his coaching duties and shipping off Richardson along with Dudley in a five-player deal centered around Phoenix’s Raja Bell and Boris Diaw.
“(Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations) David Griffin and (Bobcats General Manager) Rod Higgins originally had a conversation involving a potential deal over the summer,” Suns President and General Manager Steve Kerr recalled. “The two of them went back and forth, but in the beginning we weren’t really interested in doing anything until taking a look at what we had. Once we got maybe 20 games in the season, we saw we were kind of struggling and had a tough mix of players.”
Griffin saw the potential of a roster move as giving the Suns a fresh threat on both ends of the floor.
“We felt we needed another player that could really put the pressure on a defense and knew Richardson had the ability to score in volumes,” Griffin said. “We also liked the fact that he had been a very good defender in college and felt like his length and his athleticism would play well in our system. Each of the two teams reached a point where the timing was right to make a move, and once Charlotte became willing to include Jared in this deal, things kind of took off.”
Richardson and Dudley were both ecstatic upon learning about the deal and rode the momentum of the good news through a day that involved traveling, taking physicals, meeting with media and suiting up for a game against the Magic.
“It was pretty hectic, but I just remember how excited both Jared and I were the entire time,” Richardson said of his first day with Phoenix. “We knew we were heading into a good opportunity for the both of us. We were leaving a team that was going to need some time for its young talent to develop and going to a team that already had a ton of experience, including a two-time MVP.”
For Richardson, the trade not only meant occupying the same roster as Steve Nash, but sharing a backcourt with him. It was a concept that not only excited J-Rich, but also the Suns front office.
“As good as Raja was for us, we felt with Jason we were getting a bigger offensive threat,” Kerr said. “He was a little more explosive and a little more capable of enjoying big nights where he could carry his team.”
It did not take long for Suns fans to witness that explosiveness for themselves. Just 60 seconds after scoring his first points as a Sun via a lay-up, Richardson caught and slammed an alley-oop pass from Leandro Barbosa which brought the crowd to its feet. In the victory over Orlando, the guard scored a game-high-tying 21 points, good for the sixth-best debut in franchise history.
Despite the strong start, however, the 2008-09 season left more to be desired for Richardson as the Suns failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2004. Richardson struggled to find a consistent role on a team loaded with stars and after that debut, it would be nearly a month before he would again score 21 or more points.
“It definitely didn’t work out like I expected, and I took it to heart,” said Richardson. “You come here to a team like this and at the very least you expect to make the playoffs.”
Dudley meanwhile didn’t look comfortable from the start, and after being held scoreless in his debut against Orlando, didn’t step back onto the court in each of Phoenix’s next four games. It wasn’t until Alvin Gentry took over the reins as head coach the following February that the swingman began seeing an increased role with the ballclub.
“Watching him practice, I just had a feeling if we stuck him into the rotation that he would help us,” Gentry said. “Jared is just a real solid guy. He’s a glue guy who does nothing great but can do everything really, really well.”
That versatility was among the reasons Kerr and Griffin liked Dudley and why he was a major piece in that December deal rather than the “throw-in” player that some believed him to be at the time.
“(Bobcats Head Coach) Larry Brown loved him,” Kerr explained. “He didn’t want to give him up in a deal but that was the only way we were going to do it.
“Jared wasn’t necessarily a guy whose athleticism translated to the NBA. He’s not real fast and he can’t jump very high, but we really liked his intangibles and his toughness and that was a big part of what we were trying to add to this team.”
Now getting consistent playing time, it’s easy for fans to see why Kerr says this deal wouldn’t have been done without Dudley, and why the “Junkyard Dog” is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Phoenix.
“Jared’s great when it comes to generating energy and right now he’s playing really well,” Nash said. “He’s become kind of a leader on that second unit and is an important player to this team who makes good decisions and plays terrific defense.”
Richardson agreed and added, “Being in Phoenix has been big for him. Obviously playing in Charlotte you’re not going to get the recognition of playing in a lot of nationally televised games, but it’s good to see him getting the attention he deserves.”
But while he has certainly gained the respect of his teammates, it’s perhaps Gentry who offers up the biggest compliment in regards to Dudley.
“I’ll tell you, that guy is a coach’s dream, he really is,” the head coach said. “He’s not the world’s greatest athlete, but he’s definitely one of its smartest players. I don’t know if I’ve had many players that were as intelligent as he is.”
At one point one of the league’s best-kept secrets, the proverbial cat is now out of the bag in regards to Dudley – with the Suns being the beneficiary. Wasting no time to contribute this season, Dudley was a major reason why the Suns enjoyed a 4-1 East Coast road trip at the start of November. In the team’s win at Philadelphia to close out the trip, Dudley contributed 18 points, five rebounds and three steals, but as Gentry pointed out, it was perhaps his effort in Miami which most stood out to the coaching staff.
“Looking back at that trip,” Gentry said, “that win against Miami might have been the biggest out of the four, and Jared was a huge part of that game coming off the bench. That win got us off to a nice start, and if you look at it, you lose that game and all of a sudden you’re headed to Orlando after a loss and potentially looking at a downward spiral.”
Like Dudley, Richardson has also flourished this season under Gentry’s fast-paced offense. In the team’s big win at Boston, the sharpshooter had the hot hand, racking up a then-season-high 34 points – his eighth 20-plus-point performance in his first 16 games of the season.
“Jason came in this season on a mission,” assistant coach Dan Majerle said. “He was in great shape, and he realizes that he needs to play really well for us to be a good team. I’ve really liked where his mindset has been, and he understands he has to play aggressively for us on both ends of the floor.”
Some credit Richardson’s strong start to the fact that he now has a more defined role on the ballclub, something he hasn’t had in quite some time.
“I told him at the beginning of the season that I wanted him to be our second-leading scorer,” Gentry said. “I think he can do that, and I think he just feels a lot more comfortable this season about who he is and how he can best contribute to our team.”
It may not have happened overnight, but Richardson and Dudley have both attained what they envisioned on that hectic day in which they joined Phoenix.
“This is definitely more of what I had in mind when I came to this organization,” smiled Richardson. “Running fastbreaks and having fun with a great group of guys who you really enjoy being around.
While Richardson has recently dedicated himself to working turntables as DJ Factor, and Dudley keeps in touch with fans via his Twitter account @JaredDudley619 and video blog on Suns.com, both list hanging out with teammates as their favorite pastime these days.
“Sometimes you’re together with your teammates more than your family, so it’s only a matter of time before those guys start to become like family,” Richardson said.
Dudley agreed, “It’s a fun group to be around, and that’s why I try to get everybody to spend as much time together on the road as possible.”
While bonding with colleagues is nothing new to professional athletes, Gentry who has been with the Suns since 2004 and has also spent time coaching the Clippers, Pistons and Heat, said the relationships on this team are unlike any he’s seen in professional sports.
“This is not just the best camaraderie I’ve seen since being with the Suns, but the best I’ve seen in 22 years in the league and I think those guys are a big part of it,” Gentry said. “Both Jason and Jared are very likable guys with good personalities. They have the respect of their teammates for their ability to play basketball but are also solid guys who are just easy to like.”
Attributes like those mentioned by Gentry aren’t often included on NBA scouting reports. But while Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley each possess different styles which have contributed to Phoenix’s hot start to the season, their similarities have been equally as critical in helping to make the former Bobcats a perfect fit with the Suns.