For a four-game stretch during the 2014 NCAA Tournament against Iowa, Massachusetts, Mercer and Michigan, you’d have been challenged to find 10 college basketball players performing at a higher level than Tennessee Volunteers guard Josh Richardson. A little less than 12 months later, as Richardson’s career comes to a close in light of a 16-16 season that ended with an 80-72 loss to Arkansas, that might not surprise you.
After all, Richardson was first team All-SEC defender as a junior, and he’d have his best statistical season leading an undermanned Tennessee squad on his way to first-team All-SEC recognition. He was a darkhorse for the conference player of the year award and at times he carried Tennessee.
Against Butler (a No. 6 seed in this year’s NCAA Tourney), he had 20 points and an astonishing 6 steals. In a win over No. 18 Arkansas at home on Jan. 13, he poured in 20 points on just 11 shots to go along with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals. In a win on the road against Vanderbilt on Feb. 11 in overtime, he had 27 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.
Late in the season with Tennessee needing to rack up a few wins to even garner NIT consideration, he tallied 20 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 assists in an unexpected upset of LSU on the road.
However, as we grew to expect those performances late in 2014 and throughout 2015, maybe 12 months prior (definitely 24) we would have never thought Josh Richardson was capable of dominating a basketball game at this level. We certainly wouldn’t have thought him capable of dominating in this fashion–on BOTH ends of the floor.
When Richardson arrived on campus prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, his recruitment (or, more, his recruiting class) drew a lot of ire during a particulrly contentious time for Tennessee basketball. The previous season, Bruce Pearl was fired after lying during the investigation of a minor infraction, and when Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin took over with an accelerated recruiting timeline and several needs to fill, he took what many considered to be some questionable commitments.
Richardson was a member of that initial signing class for Cuonzo Martin, though, in fairness, unlike Yemi Makanjoula, Dwight Miller and Quintin Chievous, Richardson could at least be considered a mid-level prospect with offers from Georgia Tech and Penn State to his name. However, after becoming accustomed to highly sought after prospects like Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris and Jordan McRae (all Top 50 talents), having Josh Richardson as the crown jewel of your recruiting class was a difficult sell.
Richardson was a lengthy perimeter player who could give you meaningful minutes on the defensive end, but most thought he had incredibly limited upside at the offensive end. However, since he was a quality student from a good home (his mom was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force reserves and his dad was a firefighter), he looked like a player who’d help fill out a roster and add some depth on the wing.
But from the second he stepped foot on campus, Richardson worked his way into the rotation, playing a critical role as an on-ball defender as a freshman in 16 minutes per game while making nine starts. Sure, he’d average just 2.9 points per game, but he frequently found the floor for pivotal minutes on Cuonzo’s defensively-oriented team. The next year, he found his way into the starting lineup, starting all 33 of Tennessee’s games and often drawing the opposition’s best perimeter scoring threat.
By the time his junior year had started, Richardson had already far outperformed any reasonable expectation for a fringe high-major prospect by proving himself as a reliable defender scoring around eight a night. However, the Vols hadn’t made a tournament appearance in either of his two seasons on campus, and coming into 2013-14, he knew he’d have to become a reliable fourth scoring option behind Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon for Tennessee to earn a bid to The Dance.
A poor shooter from distance during his first two campaigns (he shot 23% from beyond the arc), he made a concerted effort to become a more consistent jump-shooter. Against Virginia (a team that managed 30 wins that season) on Dec. 30 of that year, Richardson hit all four of his three-point attempts on his way to his first ever 20-point performance in an 87-52 blowout win for Tennessee that may have ultimately gotten Tennessee into the NCAA Tournament as one of the last at-large teams.
On the season, he’d hit 34 percent of his three-pointers while bringing his free throw percentage up from 69% in 2012-13 to 79%. He’d average 10.3 points per game and gave the Vols spurts as a perimeter scoring option in addition to McRae that could slash to the rim and knock down uncontested jumpers.
During that regular season, we saw stretches of what Josh Richardson could potentially be; however, knowing that he could be the go-to option in 2014-15, he still would have to develop a more dynamic offensive game. Then, the NCAA Tournament happened.
During a stretch when Richardson didn’t shoot it particularly well (he shot just 4-for-15 from deep in tourney play), Richardson got into the lane as he pleased.
He scored all 17 of his points against Iowa in the second half of the play-in game in Dayton. In the blowout of UMass, he put up a quiet 15 on just 7 shots from the field. Against Mercer he bested his career high with 26 in another convincing win and then scored 19 against Michigan in the gut-wrenching defeat.
During that stretch, Josh Richardson hit nearly 62 percent of his shots from the floor while averaging over 19 points per game. Any doubts that he could be a team’s No. 1 scoring option had effectively been terminated.
Still, with Cuonzo Martin taking a job at Cal and Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton graduating while Jarnell Stokes declared for the NBA Draft, Josh Richardson was probably never going to be enough for the Vols in 2014-15.
Sometimes, he miraculously was, and new first-year Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall’s scrappy bunch played above their talent level at times to make the Vols look competitive. But with attrition saddling the BasketVols with its thinnest roster in nearly a decade, things tanked down the stretch.
And still, with Tennessee needing a couple wins in the SEC Tournament to have a chance at postseason play, Richardson was at his best, giving Tennessee 22 points in a come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt and another 22 points in the loss to Arkansas. He was always at his best when Tennessee needed it most. That’s the legacy he’ll leave at Tennessee.
And now, as his collegiate career ends prematurely with a disappointing 16-16 record (by Richardson’s lofty standards) the fact that we have to emphasize “collegiate” before we say career is a true testament to how constantly Josh Richardson’s game evolved. He came to Tennessee as a player we expected to merely contribute, and he left a star.
Now, with a slashing mid-range game, an improved jump shot and steady ball-handling skills having handled point guard responsibilities this past year combined with his reputation as a great perimeter defender with length, Richardson is an underrated NBA Draft prospect who might merit a second-round pick according to some projections, though he falls outside the Top 100 draft prospects according to most analysts.
However, when you consider that a guy like Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker has earned a likely first-round grade, it’s hard to see how Richardson wouldn’t at least earn a shake in an NBA camp. As illustrated in this excellent comparison between the two by PeachTreeHoops.com, Dekker might be slightly more polished offensively (certainly more orthodox), but Richardson is a far superior defender and similarly athletic.
As a second-round pick, Richardson presents an incredibly low-risk, high-reward option who I could easily see working his way into an NBA rotation. Whether NBA execs agree is yet to be determined, but who could have thought we’d even be entertaining this conversation when he arrived as spindly Air Force brat from Oklahoma?