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Six years ago, Josh Richardson was sure he’d become a doctor. Now, he’s a burgeoning NBA star

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DETROIT – Josh Richardson is living an NBA fairytale.

He was a middling recruit out of high school, spent four seasons at Tennessee then got picked in the second round. Just three years later, he’s a budding star with a life-changing contract.

It’s probably uncoincidental his rise came in Miami. The Heat are renowned for their environment, where underappreciated hard-working players get in great shape and develop their skills. In Miami, Hassan Whiteside became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one year to a max salary the next. In Miami, undrafted Tyler Johnson earned a contract so large, he threw up when he first heard about it. In Miami, Udonis Haslem has had one of the longest careers ever for an undrafted player.

“We just want to invest everything we have with our guys – all of our experiences, all of our time, all of our love, all of our tough love – to be able to develop and put guys in the program and help them become whoever they’ve dreamed about becoming,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And if that sounds crazy to people on the outside, we love those kinds of dreams.”

But this wasn’t Richardson’s dream. Not even close.

He was set on becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Growing up, Richardson attended forums and seminars on medicine. He learned more about the field, even sat in on a surgery and met kids who shared his interest. His determination to become a doctor intensified.

He earned a basketball scholarship to Tennessee, but he focused on his pre-med classes.

“I was kind of there to get my undergrad paid for, so I could keep it moving,” Richardson said.

Richardson lived with Jordan McRae, the Volunteers’ star player. McRae frequently went to bed early to wake up early and work out. Richardson stayed up later doing homework, fighting off sleepiness, then went to class early in the morning.

Richardson doesn’t remember precisely what sparked it. He figures he was probably joking around when he shouldn’t have been. But Richardson still recalls then-Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin “freaked out on me” in front of everyone during practice Richardson’s junior year.

“You could be so good!” Richardson remembered Martin saying. “You don’t take anything serious!”

That stuck with Richardson. After talking to people close to him, he switched into easier classes to allow more time for basketball. He trained with McRae and improved significantly. Richardson gradually became a viable NBA prospect.

But when the Heat drafted him No. 40 in 2015, Richardson still looked like a limited 3-and-D player – if everything worked out.

Now, Richardson serves as Miami’s offensive focal point, defends the opponent’s best wing and plays 35 minutes per game. His all-around positives are hard to come by and reflected in his per-game averages – 21.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.0 steals.

Richardson could contend for Most Improved Player. He has accepted more offensive responsibility, cut down on long 2s in favor of more efficient shots and maintained his impressive defense amid a greater workload.

The biggest flaw in his case: He was already pretty good.

Few realized it, though. When Goran Dragic was named an All-Star last season, Richardson was actually the Heat’s best player.

But Richardson’s underrated status last year will help him with voters. So will his big boost in scoring average, which tends to have an outsized influence on this award. Richardson’s points-per-game increase from his previous career high (12.9 to 21.4) is one of the NBA’s highest:

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The Heat obviously believed in Richardson, but did they envision him becoming this good?

“We never want to put a ceiling on anybody,” Spoelstra said. “When he first came in, no, I didn’t necessarily see him as this.”

The next question: How much has Miami’s valuation of Richardson changed since even this season began?

With the Timberwolves focused on the Heat in Jimmy Butler trade talks, Josh Richardson moved to the forefront of discussions. Minnesota wanted him. Miami didn’t want to give him up. Eventually, the Heat offered him to the Timberwolves, and Richardson even thought a deal would be completed. But the trade fell through.

Now, there are questions whether Miami would still deal Richardson for Butler.

Richardson is four years younger than Butler. Richardson is just starting a four-year contract extension worth nearly $42 million, extremely team-friendly terms. Butler will become an unrestricted free agent next summer and will seek a five-year max contract projected to be worth $190 million over five years, a scary cost for someone with his mileage. Butler is better, but Richardson is closing the gap in his breakout season.

Butler remains in Minnesota and on the trade block, leaving plenty of uncertainty for the Heat. Richardson says he sometimes checks on trade rumors, but he tries to remain focused on his job, which isn’t in the front office.

“I’ve always kind of stayed in my lane,” Richardson.

Still? The former pre-med student who was content as a college-basketball defensive specialist and is now thriving in the NBA beyond imagination?

“I still know my limits a lot of the time,” Richardson said. “But I don’t really put limits on it on the court anymore.”

Khris Middleton drops career-best 51 on Wizards, Bucks win without Antetokounmpo

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored a career-high 51 points in the absence of injured teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 151-131 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night.

Middleton, hoping to be chosen an All-Star reserve for the second straight year on Thursday, helped the Bucks hold off a second-half Wizards rally. Middleton also had 10 rebounds and six assists while hitting 16 of 26 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers.

Milwaukee (41-6) scored a franchise-record 88 points in the first half, finished with its highest total of the season and won its ninth straight game despite the absence of Antetokounmpo, who sat out with a right shoulder injury.

Bradley Beal led the Wizards (15-31) with 47 points, his second straight 40-point game and sixth of the season.

Milwaukee led by as many as 32 points but the Wizards rallied in the third quarter, putting up 41 points to cut their deficit to 117-104 entering the fourth. Washington got within seven points in the final period but could not get closer.

Eric Bledsoe had 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for the Bucks. Donte DiVincenzo added 16 points.

Middleton responded with 13 points in the fourth quarter as he scored the most points by a Bucks player this season. He pounded home a dunk to go over 50 points and give the Bucks a 13-point lead late in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo had 50 points on Nov. 25 against Utah.

The Bucks came out firing from deep, hitting eight of their first nine attempts from 3-point range. Milwaukee converted 14 of 22 shots in the first quarter on the way to a 42-28 lead.

And they kept going in the second quarter. Middleton hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half to give the Bucks a 69-43 lead with 5:46 left. Middleton nailed two more 3s to finish the half 6 for 6 from 3-point range and with 28 points.

The Bucks sank 14 of 24 3-pointers in the half and established a franchise best for points in a half as they grabbed an 88-63 lead at intermission.

The previous mark for points in a half was 87 set against New Orleans on March 14, 1979.

Joel Embiid’s Kobe tribute: 24 points while wearing uniform No. 24; 76ers’ win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wearing No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid scored 24 points in his first game in three weeks, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore No. 24 and No. 8 Bryant jerseys in warmups in honor of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.

The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.

Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a 3 that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.

The Sixers were the latest team to honor Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed No. 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash. The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.

Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s No. 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.

The mood in the building also was tempered, in part, because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favorites but D'Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.

Al Horford buried a 3 and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.

 

A tearful Shaquille O’Neal talks about his time, relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Shaquille O’Neal told Justin Tasch of New York Post: “I’m not doing well. I’m sick” about the death of his former teammate Kobe Bryant (along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna).

A lot of people can relate to that, but Shaq pulled it together enough to talk about his former championship teammate.

When it came to what he could no longer tell Kobe, Shaq teared up.

Shaq and Kobe had legendary feuds back in the day, but in later years made up and were friends.

Like many people, Shaq is still trying to process all of it. That’s going to take a long time.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.