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:
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.”