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Josh Richardson and the Modern Art of Building a Star From the Ground Up

The 25-year-old wing is one of the best two-way players in the NBA, and a clear example of how the league’s 3-point revolution has created a new breed of stardom

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The emergence of Josh Richardson has been one of the few bright spots in another lost season in Miami. The 25-year-old is making one of the toughest leaps in the NBA, from a player who had others create offense for him to someone who creates offense for others. He has become a supercharged version of a 3-and-D player: He is taking more 3s than ever before, and the increase in his 3-point rate has made every part of his offensive game more effective. Richardson, who is averaging career highs in points (17.4), assists (4.0), and rebounds (3.6), is now one of the most well-rounded wings in the league. The question is whether he can become the kind of star who can save the Heat.

“We felt it was the natural evolution in [Richardson’s] fourth year. He put in a terrific summer of work. He really dedicated himself to player development, and to building up his body in order to have a bigger workload on both ends of the court,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra during a shootaround before a 112-101 victory over the Mavericks on February 13. “He’s capable of being a dominant two-way force.”

There have been many nights this season when Richardson has looked like a future All-Star. He had a star-making performance (a career-high 37 points, including shooting 8-of-11 from 3, while also racking up five assists and just two turnovers) in a 120-118 loss at Golden State on February 10. He’s a high-level shooter with a counter for everything the defense does to try to slow him down:

The foundations of his game haven’t changed. At 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Richardson is a knockdown shooter (36.9 percent from 3 on 6.5 attempts per game, right near his career average of 37.3 percent) who has the size and athleticism to slide among three positions on defense. The key to his growth is that his percentages from beyond the arc have remained constant as his volume has increased. He is almost tripling the number he attempted as a rookie (2.2 per game), while taking almost twice as many on a per-minute basis. The result is a player who scores more than traditional 3-and-D wings while getting a higher percentage of his offense from behind the arc (44.5 percent) than most primary scorers. Richardson is no. 9 in 3-point-attempt rate among the 56 players in the NBA averaging at least 17 points per game this season, ahead of marksmen like Lauri Markkanen (43.0) and Klay Thompson (41.1).

It’s not just that he’s taking more 3s. Richardson is taking different types of 3s, too. He’s no longer just a spot-up shooter who scores within the flow of the offense. He can now dribble into jumpers and call his own number at any point in the possession. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Richardson went from taking 50 jumpers off the dribble as a rookie to 242 through the first 58 games of this season.

“Last year, and the year before, I was shooting a lot of midrange. I tried to move it out a little bit,” Richardson told me in the lobby of his hotel in Dallas. “Coach said he’d rather me shoot 3s instead of some of those [2-point] pull-ups.”

The value of taking those shots goes beyond the math. Richardson has always had a fairly versatile offensive game, with the ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays on the move. Becoming a volume 3-point shooter enhanced both skills; the shot has become a force multiplier. Defenses have to guard him farther up the court, which opens up driving lanes to the rim, and because the help is coming from a greater distance away, Richardson has an easier time reading where it is coming from and finding the open man.

“[Defenses] guard me a lot different than they used to,” he said. “They don’t leave me on the perimeter. Ball-screen coverages are different. Every time I touch it, there’s a little bit more attention.”

The leap he has made this season seems sustainable because it is more than just a hot shooting streak—he is a smart player who uses the threat of the 3 to open up the rest of his game. A lot of players can put up bigger raw numbers with more opportunities. What makes Richardson’s growth notable is that he’s increased his usage without losing much efficiency, while also making more plays for his teammates without turning the ball over more:

Josh Richardson’s Growth, By the Numbers

Richardson 2017-18 2018-19
Richardson 2017-18 2018-19
3PA 4.1 6.5
3P% 37.8 36.9
FTA 1.8 3.4
AST 2.9 4
TO 1.7 1.8
USG 18.8 21.1
TS% 55.1 54.3

“Josh has been unbelievable,” said Kelly Olynyk in the locker room after their game in Dallas. “Just his improvement from last year to this year. He’s shooting the ball well and making plays, and defensively he’s always been there. He’s just super confident. He has really developed an all-around game, from making pull-up 3s to getting to the basket and shooting free throws well.”

The reason more people aren’t talking about Richardson is that his team has fallen apart around him. It is on the outside of what can barely be called a playoff race for the final few spots in the East, stuck in the no. 10 seed with a 27-33 record and a net rating of minus-1.1. The Heat have been ravaged by injuries, with Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, and James Johnson all missing significant time, but their mix of players doesn’t make sense even when everyone is healthy. Their roster is overloaded with streaky outside shooters who need the ball in their hands to be successful.

Richardson is one of the only things keeping the team afloat. The Heat still have an elite defense (no. 7 in the NBA), but they haven’t been able to score enough (no. 25 offense) to keep up with the league’s offensive explosion. The Heat are an average 3-point-shooting team even with him: no. 13 in attempts (32.7) and no. 20 in percentage (34.8). And their offense doesn’t have enough room to breathe without him. Miami’s offensive rating goes from 105.3 in his 1,981 minutes on the floor to 99.7 (which, prorated over the whole season, would be the worst by a significant margin) in his 856 minutes on the bench. They don’t have anyone to pick up the slack when he is off. The Heat are 4-11 in games in which he has scored 13 or fewer points this season, including ugly losses to the Bulls, Hawks, and Suns.

“Sometimes I find myself not being as aggressive as I need to be. That’s probably one of my biggest things: just teaching myself that even when I miss X amount of shots, keep going and keep being aggressive,” Richardson said. “It’s a mental game. It’s a line you have to walk between overdoing it and not doing enough.”

Few players have as much responsibility as Richardson. He is leading his team in points, field goal attempts (14.5), and minutes played (34.8), while also being their best 3-point shooter and perimeter defender, and one of their primary playmakers.

“That’s why the good two-way players in this league are recognized. Not everyone can do that. Guys like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, guys like that who play both ends. That is kind of rare,” Richardson said.

This season has been an education for Richardson in what it takes to carry a team. He was never supposed to be a star. He wasn’t ranked in the top 100 of his high school class, and he was taken with the no. 40 pick in the 2015 draft after four seasons at Tennessee. Miami thought Justise Winslow, a one-and-done player whom they took 30 spots ahead of Richardson that year, would be the next face of its franchise. Richardson doesn’t have the same physical gifts as his more heralded teammate, who already had a chiseled frame (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds) at the age of 19, but he’s a much better shooter. That is enough to turn the dynamic between the two players on its head.

Richardson came into the league at the perfect time for a player with his skill set. The NBA is in the midst of an unprecedented 3-point boom. James Harden is redefining the limits of what is possible at the upper end of the spectrum, and Richardson is part of a generation of younger guards being carried in his wake. He is one of 14 players under the age of 27 who are averaging at least six 3-point attempts per game this season. There were only four players of any age attempting that many a decade ago. Richardson is no. 23 in the NBA at 6.5 attempts per game this season. That same number would have put him at no. 13 in his rookie season (2015-16) and no. 2 in Harden’s (2009-10).

“There has definitely been a big uptick in 3s the last couple of years,” said Richardson. “I don’t even know what to think anymore. The best teams right now—the way they are trending, I think the rest of the league is going to try and catch up to that.”

Few players can appreciate the power of the 3 more than Richardson.

Mastering the shot hasn’t just pushed him to the brink of stardom, it’s the only reason he’s in the league. He wasn’t on NBA draft boards when he was coming out of high school. He was a three-star recruit who was originally going to play for head coach Cuonzo Martin at Missouri State, a school in a small conference (the Missouri Valley) that has had only four players drafted since the turn of the century. Martin brought Richardson along with him when he was hired at Tennessee, and there was doubt at the time as to whether he was an SEC-caliber player.

“He’s from Edmond, Oklahoma [a town of less than 100,000 on the outskirts of Oklahoma City], and he was not on a highly touted travel team,” Jon Harris, an assistant coach at Tennessee under Martin who is now the head coach at SIU-Edwardsville, told me over the phone. “He was on the thin side and developing offensively. He was kind of a late bloomer. He definitely didn’t come with a lot of fanfare.”

So Richardson flew under the radar. There are a lot of wings in college basketball with the size and athleticism to play at the next level, but most don’t have the necessary skills. Richardson rarely attempted 3s in his first two seasons at Tennessee, shooting 22.5 percent from behind the arc on 1.2 attempts per game. NBA teams didn’t notice him until he made a giant leap as a junior, shooting 34.0 percent from 3 on 2.7 attempts per game.

“My junior season was I when I started knocking them down pretty consistently. There was a rule when I was a freshman or sophomore that I couldn’t shoot a 3 unless there was eight seconds or less on the shot clock,” said Richardson.

Martin is a defensive-minded coach who believes in taking care of the ball and slowing the pace. He didn’t want players with smaller roles in the offense taking too many shots early in the possession. Richardson was overshadowed by Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes, both of whom have had a few brief stops in the NBA, in his first three seasons at Tennessee. It took a long time until he was ready to be the primary option on offense, even in college. Martin pushed his players to make 500 jumpers a day in practice, and no one benefited from all those years of repetition more than Richardson, who assistants routinely saw being the first player in the gym and the last one to leave.

His college coaches believed in his touch because of his ability to shoot long 2s. “Josh was always really good in that midrange, even as a freshman,” Harris said. “He has one of the better pull-ups that I have been around. He just struggled with his 3, and sometimes he would struggle around the rim because he wasn’t strong enough physically. As he got stronger and continued to work and just shoot a lot of reps, then he gained more confidence in his 3. I don’t think his technique has changed a whole lot. He’s more confident and a lot stronger.”

His development on the perimeter has been something of a paradox. Pulling up from a few steps back has been one of the keys to his growth in the NBA, but he may have never been in a position to become a good 3-point shooter if he hadn’t worked on those midrange shots earlier in his career.

The lack of expectations in college might have been a blessing in disguise. Richardson wasn’t rushed to the next level. He grew into a bigger role in the NCAA, where he could still make a significant impact on a team even though he didn’t have a 3-point shot. He averaged 30.7 minutes per game as a sophomore despite rarely shooting 3s. It’s harder for coaches to find minutes for perimeter players who can’t shoot in the NBA, no matter what else they can do. That has been the biggest issue for Winslow in Miami: He mostly came off the bench in his first three seasons because he didn’t shoot 3s well enough to play off the ball. He became a full-time starter this season only because he moved to point guard after Dragic injured his knee. Richardson, unlike Winslow, can play on or off the ball, which allows the Heat to use him in different roles.

“I turn into more of a ball handler with the second unit. Justise has the ball in his hands a lot in the first, and I’m kind of coming off pin-downs and doing stuff like that. In the second unit, I’m more of an initiator,” Richardson said.

The next step for Richardson is to be a leader off the court. He came into the NBA as a soft-spoken rookie who didn’t rock the boat on a veteran team. Now, with many of those same veterans aging out of the league, Richardson is the one who has to set the tone in the locker room and hold younger and less established players like Bam Adebayo (21) and Derrick Jones Jr. (22) accountable.

“You just see the confidence growing in him as a leader and a ballplayer. How he is playing and how he is approaching the game. Off the court, in practice, in huddles, in timeouts, he is being more vocal. Regardless of how many points you score, or what type of game you have offensively, that can’t change. Guys have to see you lead,” said Udonis Haslem, a 16-year NBA veteran who has played his entire career in Miami. “I love J-Rich. He’s one of my favorite guys. I have had an opportunity to watch him grow, and I’m so proud of the growth that he’s done on and off the court.”

What Miami has to figure out is how much more he can grow. It has been incubating Richardson as a potential cornerstone for the past four seasons but had the opportunity to exchange him for an actual star earlier in the season. Richardson was reportedly the centerpiece of a potential trade package to Minnesota for Jimmy Butler—the two sides had reportedly exchanged physicals before the trade fell apart at the last minute, when Tom Thibodeau pushed for more draft picks. Richardson, who is four years younger than Butler, will probably be a better player than Butler in four years. But will he ever be as good as Butler is now?

Richardson has only the fourth-highest usage rate (21.1) on the Heat this season, but raising his usage will be difficult. He gets 34.9 percent of his offensive possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll despite being in only the 42nd percentile of scorers leaguewide on those plays. He might struggle further in a playoff setting, when defenses are more likely to switch the screen and force the ball handler to score in one-on-one matchups, where Richardson is least effective.

He has physical limitations in comparison to some of the best wings in the league. The Heat emphasize strength and conditioning as much as any team, and they encouraged Richardson to work on his body last summer to get ready for his increased offensive workload this season. The issue he has isn’t putting on the weight. It’s keeping it on his lanky frame (6-foot-6 and 200 pounds) during the season.

“I approached the weight room a lot more seriously. I actually gained like 12 pounds, but once we started running and stuff like that, it all came off,” he told me with a laugh.

Everything comes back to the 3 for Richardson. There is only so much that a player with his physical tools can improve around the rim. He needs most of his offense to come from the perimeter. The growth he has made as a scorer has come primarily from raising his 3-point rate. There may be room to raise it more. He is attempting 6.5 3s per game this season. How much better could he be if he pushed that number to eight? Or even 10, the number that Paul George is averaging? It’s unclear what Richardson’s limit would be. The only thing we know for sure is that he hasn’t hit it yet.

The key to his growth will be the types of 3s he’ll take. The big jump in his 3-point rate this season has come from taking an extra 1.6 pull-up 3s per game, but that may not be the best path to raising it further. He is shooting only 29 percent on those shots. The threat of the shot is important for how it sets up the rest of his game, but it doesn’t have to be the centerpiece of what he does. The Heat could do more to build their offense around his ability to shoot off movement. George takes 1.6 more shots per game after coming around screens off the ball than Richardson, who gets only 5.7 percent of his offensive possessions this season out of those plays, despite scoring in the 63rd percentile on them.

The beauty of shots generated from off-ball screens is that they don’t require as much floor spacing around them as ones taken out of the pick-and-roll. It is relatively simple for a defense to send multiple defenders at a ball handler in the two-man game and dare a weaker shooter to make them pay. It is harder to crowd a player when he is being screened off the ball since that opens up room for the player with the ball. Running those plays creates more floor spacing. It’s not just that it would make Richardson a better player. It would open up more room for Winslow and Adebayo to attack the rim, while also giving them more opportunities to play with the ball in their hands.

Miami has no choice but to build around its young core of Richardson, Winslow, and Adebayo. The Heat are a mediocre team in salary cap hell until the summer of 2020, and they owe a completely unprotected first-round pick in the 2021 draft. Their only way forward is to package some of their young players in a trade for a star, like they were almost able to do with Richardson, or hope they’ll become good enough to attract a player like that in free agency in 2020 or 2021. That is their window to make this core work. Richardson is in the first season of a contract extension (four seasons for $42 million) that already looks like a steal. He has a player option for $11.6 million in the 2021-22 season, which he could decline to become an unrestricted free agent at 28.

Being a franchise player may not be his destiny in the NBA. He will never be a dominant pick-and-roll player, which means he would be the perfect secondary option to someone who is. The most interesting comparison for Richardson that I heard from people in NBA front offices is Andre Iguodala, a do-it-all wing who was miscast as a primary option in Philadelphia before landing in Golden State. He would be phenomenal as a perimeter stopper who provides secondary scoring and playmaking. The difference is that Richardson is a volume 3-point shooter while the outside shot has always been the weakest part of Iguodala’s game.

It would be fitting that the 2020s version of Iguodala is a high-level 3-point shooter. A lot of the conversation around the league these days is about what trend is next after the rise of the 3. The reality is that this one has only just begun. The future of the NBA will feature a lot more late bloomers like Richardson who learned to shoot 3s in college. The shot has created a new path to stardom for players with less exceptional physical tools. Steph Curry and James Harden, by popularizing the pull-up 3 and stepback 3, respectively, essentially came down from Mount Olympus with the secret of fire. Josh Richardson is a mortal who learned to harness the power of the shot for himself. There will be a whole generation of players who follow in his footsteps.

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