One of my favorite NCAA stories last season was the run of the Tennessee Volunteers. After fans started a midseason partition to fire coach Cuonzo Martin, the team suddenly caught white hot fire and started destroying everything in its path en route to a surprise Sweet 16 berth. In a season where a 7 seed beat an 8 seed for the championship, Tennessee was the sole team that finished with a better Kenpom rank (7) than tournament seed (11) (Correction– Louisville qualified too). This earned NBA attention for leading scorers Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae, but the unnoticed and unsung hero of this run was Josh Richardson.
Richardson had the reputation as the team’s best on ball defender. Whether this label truly belonged to him or McRae, the two wings were collectively doing something right on defense. Tennessee finished with the #19 kenpom D while neither forcing many turnovers nor having a rim protecting big with Jarnell Stokes and bowling ball shaped Jeronne Maymon patrolling the paint. McRae (3.3%) and Richardson (2.8%) both contended with Stokes (2.9%) for top block rate in the starting lineup. The collective defense was a team effort, but it speaks well for Richardson’s defense that he had a reputation as the stopper on a good defensive team with no clear playmaker on that end.
Offensively, Richardson’s role is approximately what it will be in the NBA, as McRae and Stokes carried the scoring load. Richardson posted a humble 17.3 usage rate, but with a good 2p% (54.4%) and assist:TOV (2.0 to 1.3) and an adequate 3p% (34.0), he led the starters in O-Rtg. This shows that he can fit in as an efficient role player, but does little justice to the havoc he wreaked during the tourney.
In Tennessee’s 4 tournament games, Richardson averaged 19.3 points, 3.0 assists, and just 1.5 TOV’s while shooting an incredible 25/32 (78.1%!!!) inside the arc. In fairness, Tennessee face weak opposition by tourney standards before losing to 2 seed Michigan in a game where the favorite required 11/20 3 point shooting to win by 2. But he nevertheless put on his domination pants and dominated the hell out of the tournament.
Unfortunately for J-Rich, this wasn’t enough to garner scouts attention. This year he was the only returning player among Tennessee’s top 6, and they had a new coach to boot. So he was forced to carry a thin, under talented roster in obscurity, and he did an admirable job. Now the team’s primary playmaker, he led the team in usage and assist rate and did so efficiently leading the team in O-Rtg. With J-Rich doing everything, Tennessee finished respectably with the 68th best kenpom offense. Defensively, Tennessee now played a press-zone defense that was much less effective than Cuonzo’s man to man, but Richardson led the team in steal rate while having the second lowest foul rate ahead only of Robert Hubbs who avoided fouls by avoiding playing defense with 1/3 the STL/BLK rates of J-Rich. He also had the 3rd highest DRB% of Tennessee’s 9 man rotation, as he stuffed the stat sheet in every regard for the rebuilding Volunteers.
Of course stats only tell part of the story, and while there is not much visual evidence of Richardson on the Internet this highlight video gives a taste of how he appears in motion:
-He is clearly an above average athlete for an NBA wing
-He is 6’6″ with solid length, and while he is a bit wiry he has the size to guard SG’s and smaller SF’s
-There is no evidence of lateral quicks, but based on defensive reputation and athleticism it seems safe to assume that they are at least satisfactory
-He shows surprisingly smooth footwork with a couple of nice eurosteps at 2:37 and 2:53
There is little to dislike about J-Rich. He has good tools for an NBA wing, he has shown that he can play efficiently as a role player, he has adequate creation skill for a 3 + D wing, and all signs point toward him having a realistic shot of becoming a + defensive wing in the pros. His biggest knock is that he wasn’t a superstar as an NCAA senior, but this is mitigated by him being young for his class as he does not turn 22 until September.
The next worst thing to say about him is that he only shot 31.8% from 3 for his college career. He shot just 22.5% as a freshman and sophomore before improving to 35.1% as a junior and senior with 79.6% FT’s to back up his 3 point improvement. While this still may not make him quite the sharpshooter that teams seek in a 3 + D prospect, shooting is the most improvable skill and it’s certainly within his range to become a high 30’s NBA 3 point shooter. If nothing else it is much more efficient to seek 3 + D types in good defensive players who need minor shooting upticks over sharpshooting athletes who need to learn how to play D at age 23 (I am looking at you, CJ Wilcox).
Richardson currently ranks in neither ESPN nor DX’s top 100, but I believe he is a good target in the late 1st or early 2nd round. This year’s 1st round is deep and good, but looking at DX’s 2nd round mock draft there are very few players that I even consider over J-Rich. Perhaps his hype never picks up and he goes undrafted, but I am a fan and will be rooting for him to find a role on an NBA team.