Josh Richardson Doesn't Need the Ball

Josh Richardson is an off-ball hero, but Miami is starting to let him have the ball more. Is that a good or bad thing?

Following the well-worn trails of traditional narratives, Josh Richardson shouldn't be here.

From the small town of Edmond, Oklahoma, Richardson was a score-first point guard who received accolades typical of most major-college bound players: All-State, coach's team, and state paper's "Super 5" team. A two-star recruit, Richardson went to the University of Tennessee, a team not known for basketball. When he arrived, they were coming off a season rattled by scandal and disappointment.

In college, Richardson (now playing in the off-guard position) was solid, setting career averages of 9.2 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game, and 1.8 assists. Richardson remained at Tennessee for all 4 years and was selected with the 40th overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Here we have something special: Richardson is a player who was good but not great in high school, good but not great in college, and marinated there for 4 years.

Some players are creators--they start, call, and execute the action on the court. They get their own shot or give shots to other teammates. They have names like Curry, Irving, Westbrook, or Harden. Other players are finishers--taking what the creator gives them and putting the ball in the hoop. You might know them as Thompson, Middleton, McCollum, or Richardson.

Both are essential.

It may be surprising, but players who don't want the ball all the time are hard to find. Many, many NBA players were their team's best player their entire lives. They want the ball. They want it always, and they feel an obligation to ensure its safe-keeping.

But as we saw from his modest college stats, that doesn't describe Josh Richardson. Perhaps this is how Richardson became what he is: a gifted, valuable, and coveted player who adapts to what is given to him. Richardson may not even be the most talented player on his team, which is precisely why he may be the most valuable player on his team.

How valuable is he? The Miami Heat are a robust 6.1 points better when Richardson is on the court. And best of all, he doesn't need to create plays to happen. Richardson is now wiggling himself into the most valuable player-type in the NBA: elite 3 and D players.

What does it look like to not need the ball and still do damage?

Per Synergy sports, here are Richardson's highest usages by play type, followed by his efficiency rating (poor, average, good, very good, etc.) based off points per possession in relation to the rest of the league:

~32% of his possessions as PnR ball handler; average

~ 22% of his possessions spot up; very good

~ 14% of his possession handoff; very good

~ 6% off screens; average

~ 3.8% off cuts; very good

~ 2.4% isolation; poor

Do you see it? Richardson's three "very good" categories all involve him receiving the play, not initiating it. Spot up shooting, handoffs, cuts. He is the fiddle played by the team.

What does this mean?

There's a reason why all 30 teams in the NBA want Josh Richardson. He is the next Khris Middleton, Joe Harris, or Jerami Grant: a player who fits on every team and is essential for that team to excel. The casual fan may scoff at those comparisons, but every front office, knowledgeable fan, and opposing team knows those players are hard to find and wildly valuable.

It's not insane to think Richardson could be a consistent 20 point player who nails threes and stops the opposition's best player. Look at Richardson's defensive gradings, again from Synergy Sports against types of plays:

P&R Ball Handler: Good 

Spot Up: Average 

Hand Off: Below Average 

Off Screen: Good 

Isolation: Very Good 

Post Up: Very Good 

P&R Roll Man: Very Good 

P&R Ball Handler (big man): Excellent 

He doesn't quite have everything figured out, but it's clear that he's a solid defensive piece. That's pretty good for a relatively young player. On the other side of the ball, it's clear Miami is leaning on Richardson more than ever. Look at his assist tree (Richardson is the pale blue dot on the far right).

Josh Richardson assist matrix

Richardson, based on this assist network, might be the fulcrum of the Miami Heat offense. Richardson is averaging a career high in assists, just over 4 a game, up from just under 3 last year. It makes sense. He's averaging 68 touches a game, 11 more than last year.

Richardson's 68 touches per game are second only to Justise Winslow, who averages 70 per game. There's a sizeable gap to the next player, Goran Dragic, who averages 55 touches a game. Dwyane Wade is 4th with 53, and there's another hop down to Kelly Olynyk who gets around 46. This is further proof that Miami is expecting a lot out of Richardson, and so far he's delivering.

Miami is depending on him more and more, but is that good?

It would be unwise for the Heat to make Richardson their star, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Richardson paired with a star scoring guard will make a far more valuable Richardson than if he was the primary scorer for a team. He is the ultimate complimentary player, and will continue to get better for the next 3-4 years.

Watch Richardson on this play:

There are plenty of players who bring the ball up like Richardson does here, but how many will just keep going to the rim? Richardson prefers to play within his team, not forcing his team to play around him.

Another example:

You've heard people say players "take what the defense gives them." That's Josh Richardson. Think of how effortless it must be for his teammates. Like a wide receiver, once his route is done, Richardson treats his teammates as quarterbacks, and it's his job to get open, not his job to call the play.

Last one:

This is beautiful. Please watch it just a few times.

Conclusion

There is a supreme frustration when you have the ball and you've done what you can do and it's time to pass. Your teammates aren't moving. Everybody is stuck. With Richardson and his magnet-like attraction to open space, the Heat's offense can run forever betting that he'll find a way to get open.

However, now Miami is starting to depend on him more as an initiator. He's not in the driver seat of the Heat's offense just yet, but are they correct to be moving him that direction? I say don't.

The question remains for Miami: Is the team's future bright enough to keep Richardson and pair him with another player, both of whom will blossom? Or, do they trade Richardson knowing he may waste his prime without reaching actualization?

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