July 25, 2019
Josh Richardson laughed when he thought about it — next season, he's likely to be the shortest member of Philadelphia's starting lineup by a decent margin. At 6-foot-6 with an even larger wingspan, that seems impossible, even in a league where versatile wings are more coveted than perhaps they've ever been.
If he's at all concerned about the sort of assignments that will bring his way, though, he hasn't shown it yet.
"I guess I got to be the fastest guy in the starting lineup now, too," Richardson joked to a small group of reporters following his recent introduction at the Sixers' practice facility.
That attitude is what turned an unheralded recruit into one of the league's most respected two-way players, and what will make him an integral part of a winning Sixers team next season.
Richardson left his Oklahoma home to play college basketball as a mere three-star recruit, as low as the 246th-ranked player in the class of 2011 according to some services. He had received offers from a variety of Divison I programs, but most of them — TCU, Ole Miss, Providence, and Georgia Tech — are far removed from college basketball's elite.
He would end up settling on Tennessee, where his path crossed briefly with future Sixers forward Tobias Harris, who spent time at his former college during the league's last lockout. And though Richardson hadn't arrived as a certified NBA prospect, he made a swift impression on the people in the program.
"One of the coaches came to me one day and was like, that kid Josh Richardson's going to be a pro," Harris said. "I was like, well, he's always in the gym, so it's a good chance... Sure enough, drafted by Miami, one of the most underrated players in the NBA."
The constant over that time, dating all the way back to high school, has been his work ethic. Scouts who observed Richardson back then used the sort of messaging coaches always love to hear. "Never takes a play off." "Competes on both ends of the floor." "Does whatever it takes to win."
Those claims about Richardson's game eventually turned into concrete evidence at the NBA level. His first destination helped bring the best out of him. In Miami, Richardson found a program that was a perfect match with his competitive edge.
The Heat are notorious for their focus on fitness, with the team reportedly putting players through repeated weigh-ins, measurements of body-fat percentage, and goals to hit that are monitored by the team. Richardson's willingness to work helped get him in the good graces of the coaching staff right away, and that allowed him to average over 20 minutes per game as a rookie in spite of being the 40th overall pick that year.
In those days, Richardson says he tried to keep his mind focused entirely on one end of the floor, calling himself "strictly defense" during his first season with the Heat. As he grew comfortable with his place in the NBA and put in work to become more than a specialist, Richardson says it's the mental side of the game that has seen the most improvement since entering the league.
"Now, I'm very aggressive on both ends of the ball, and I think I take care of my body a lot better than I did," Richardson says, "because I didn't really know how to approach that off of the court yet. So I think I'm just a lot more levelheaded, a lot more mature about a lot of things."
Richardson's increased aggression is connected to the work he has put in to improve his game over the last few seasons. While he was miscast as a No. 1 option for large chunks of last season in Miami, Richardson can help provide some of what Philadelphia lost in free agency this summer.
The easiest way to explain Richardson's offensive fit is that he will offer diminished versions of the skills the Sixers needed out of Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick last season. As a pick-and-roll handler, he's not the self-creator Butler was, but he was firmly average out of those sets on high volume last year. As a shooter, he's more of a standstill threat than a shooter off of movement like Redick was, but his catch-and-shoot volume is worlds apart from Butler. He more than tripled Butler in catch-and-shoot threes (4.6 per game vs. 1.5) and knocked them down at a higher clip to boot.
The question is whether losing players who have dynamic individual skills can be replaced with someone who is good, not great at several different things. If Embiid or Harris prove incapable of carrying the offensive burden in crunch time, they no longer have the, "Just throw it to Jimmy" option. Richardson should excel in a smaller role, but the Sixers may be in trouble if he has too much offensive responsibility dumped into his lap.
The good news is that Richardson's career trajectory suggests he will be plenty comfortable taking whatever the offense gives him on a given night. Often, that will be spacing the floor and taking the open looks created by Embiid's presence in the paint. There will be times when he has to take on greater responsibility as a ballhandler, perhaps even running some backup point. He is coming in with an open mind, ready to adjust his style of play depending on how it shakes out.
"I've been thinking about all the factors that go into this next year. We're all going to have to change a little bit to complement each other," Richardson said. "I'm going to try to look at this roster the first few weeks to figure out what's going to be the best fit. It's not going to happen right off of the bat."
Richardson is a much cleaner fit on the other end of the floor. That starts with the intangible qualities mentioned previously — great defense starts with wanting to play it in the first place, and Richardson brings an edge the Sixers were missing during a chaotic regular season last year.
"I had to work for everything at every level. Coming in here with these guys, it’s going to be easy I think to continue that growth," Richardson said. "This whole roster is full of guys that have progressed a lot over their careers. I think it’ll be fun to be able to almost compete, to almost like, see who can be in the gym the most, see who can beat who, or see how much better we can get over these seasons."
He will fight through screens, welcome switches onto bigger players, and do many of the things Sixers fans grew accustomed to seeing Robert Covington do on the defensive end.
Playing next to Justise Winslow in Miami, Richardson was often asked to check the opposing team's point guard, and his tools at the point-of-attack will be a godsend for Philadelphia. Guards who are quicker than him are likely not as strong or long, and those that can match him in size don't have the quickness to get by him. The Sixers bled points to opposing guards last year, and Richardson will be a stabilizing presence there, allowing Simmons to focus on locking down bigger wings on a more full-time basis.
Perhaps most importantly, Richardson is part of a cohesive identity the Sixers sought to build this offseason. Playing through injury during Miami's playoff series against Philly in 2018, he got a first-hand look at what it takes to go through the Sixers.
"It’s not hard to tell what you’re going to get when you’re playing the Sixers, "Richardson said. "That series, I remember I actually sprained my AC joint on a loose ball, ran into [Embiid], and I basically played rest of the series with one arm. It wasn’t even a question of whether I was going to come back and play, that was just how it was going and that’s the type of person I am."
If Josh Richardson the player lives up to the rep of Josh Richardson the person, the Sixers are in good shape.
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