For the last couple of weeks, the word had been circulating around and out of Tennessee’s preseason basketball practices. Sophomore Josh Richardson was playing well, maybe even well enough to claim a starting job.
On Sunday, when the Vols took the floor inside UTC’s McKenzie Arena for a scrimmage against Georgia Tech, Richardson was their starting three-man. That’s likely to be the case next week, when Tennessee plays its lone exhibition game, and again four days later, on Nov. 9, when the season starts with a game against Kennesaw State.
News of Richardson’s ascension may be surprising to people outside the program, but to his teammates and coaches, it’s a logical progression for a talented player who has learned a lesson coaches at every level of the game try to impart.
“Last year, coming into college basketball for the first time, my mind was going too fast,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t really in the game (mentally). I had to slow my mind down and stop and figure out what I was doing.
“Basketball is basically a simple game. I was trying to make it too complicated.”
Coaches call Richardson’s revelation “letting the game come to you.” That advice sounds simple enough, but it’s often hard to incorporate without another important ingredient-confidence.
Richardson played well enough as a freshman, earning 16 minutes a game on the strength of his ability and willingness to defend. His shooting was another matter. Of the 102 shots Richardson put up, he made just 36 (35 percent). From 3-point range, Richardson was just 9 of 38 (23 percent), a number that had to change for the better if his playing time were to increase.
“Last year, my offense wasn’t really diverse,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t able to hit a lot of shots. I felt like I had to expand my range on my jump shot. I had to get a lot better with my ball handling. I needed to work on my footwork so I could be a little quicker going to the basket.”
In order to test those changes, Richardson needed a laboratory, an opportunity to stretch his game, work on weaknesses and develop confidence.
One day last spring, Tennessee assistant coach Kent Williams took a call that would give Richardson his opportunity. It was from Tim Maloney, the director of basketball operations at Baylor. Maloney was getting ready to take a team of Division I players, under the banner of Athletes in Action, on a 10-day, six-game tour of Germany and Poland. Would Richardson be interested in coming along?
Williams had also coached an AIA team, and he knew that was an offer Richardson couldn’t afford to pass up. Only Richardson, who had never traveled out of the country, wasn’t so sure. Williams had to keep asking, and Richardson had to do a little research. He finally realized the trip was important to his development, as a player and a person.
Suffice it to say that Maloney ran a more freewheeling system than Richardson was used to at Tennessee. The AIA players were allowed to choose their own starting lineup for every game. And Maloney encouraged his players to crank up shots they might think twice about taking in a college game.
Richardson took advantage.
“I was able to free-lance a little bit more,” Richardson said. “I took shots I maybe was hesitant to take last season, but they were shots I knew I could make.”
He did, and his confidence soared.
“I think the biggest difference between Josh last year and this year is confidence,” Williams said. “Confidence in himself and in what we’re trying to do. That’s true of just about any freshmen that comes in. Even Jarnell Stokes was in the same boat.
“In Josh’s case, he had a bunch of veteran guys around him. He was worried about, ‘should I step up and take the shot?’ And even though we told him to do that, he may have been hesitant.”
The AIA tour helped Richardson erase any doubts he had about his offensive ability. He was always able to hit pull-up jump shots. His task in the offseason was twofold. He had to add a couple of more feet to his range so he could become a 3-point threat. And he had to take advantage of his length and athleticism so he could score at the rim.
“Josh’s pull-up game is really nice,” Williams said. “But one day (in preseason workouts), we said, ‘no more pull-ups in workouts. You’re driving to the rim and you’re dunking everything.’ Now all of a sudden, he’s finishing with authority. He’s taking hits and making plays.”
New strength coach Nicodemus Christopher has helped Richardson pack on more muscle to absorb contact in the lane, and some of his newfound explosion has come as a result of wearing weighted vests and dribbling heavier basketballs in practice.
Even Richardson wasn’t sure how much his game had progressed. But his coaches did. One final piece of advice unleashed him, ultimately filling the void at the three spot left by the graduation of Cameron Tatum.
“He had been taking baby dribbles,” Williams said, “but we told him from the 3-point line, he should be able to rip by (his defender) in one dribble and explode. Just stride that thing out, and see how far you can go.”
This season, Richardson will be allowed to take strides and see how far he can go. He’s already seizing the opportunity, which surprises no one who knows him.
“Josh Richardson is all over the place,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Not just on defense. On both ends of the floor.”
“I’ve had so many guys on the team tell me they’ve got so much respect for Josh and how much he’s improved,” Williams said. “That’s amazing to hear that from the veteran guys.”
Tim Maloney, who allowed Richardson to expand his game during that AIA tour in Europe, was told on Monday that Richardson was the frontrunner to start at the three-spot for the Vols.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Malone said. “He’s a talented kid-extremely athletic, great quickness and speed, very good bounce off the ground. He can shoot and handle the basketball, and he’s got great ears-in other words, he listens and accepts coaching.
“But the most important thing is, he’s just a really, really good kid. It will not surprise me how well he does.”