Syracuse freshman Malachi Richardson put together an NCAA Tournament that helped raise his draft stock from prospect who should test the waters to prospect with a potential first round guarantee. In particular, Richardson’s second half explosion in the Elite Eight keyed the Orange’s comeback against Virginia and helped secure their first Final Four since 2013. During the win, he showed off the kind of offensive skill set that makes him an intriguing NBA prospect, knocking down three-pointers from NBA range and attacking the basket off the dribble.
Richardson entered the draft without signing with an agent, but his fortunes quickly turned when it was announced he would not be required to participate in five-on-five drills at the draft combine, signaling a rather rapid rise in his stock. Shortly after the event, Richardson signed with an agent, forgoing his final three seasons of college eligibility.
At 6-6.25, the New Jersey native has excellent size to play the shooting guard spot in the NBA. His 7-0 wingspan was also the longest wingspan measured at the combine among players projected to play the same position, beating out the likes of Dorian Finney-Smith, Jaylen Brown, and Taurean Prince by half an inch or less. No doubt Richardson has the physical tools to be considered a first round wing prospect, but his play on the court doesn’t suggest the same.
Richardson’s most attractive attribute is his scoring ability from the wing. His offensive game is best defined as streaky, but when he’s playing near his peak, the 20-year old is an impressive outside shooter and shot creator. Richardson’s mechanics on his jumper are smooth and his length gives him a nice, high release point that makes it difficult to challenge. During his freshman season, he regularly showed off NBA three-point range, often pulling up from a few feet behind the college three-point line.
Beyond his outside shooting, Richardson is also a capable shot creator, although he’s limited by his lack of explosiveness. He struggles to turn the corner, especially against longer defenders, and he doesn’t possess enough dribble moves to regularly break away from defenders for easy shots. However, the guard prospect does do a good job of taking advantage of rotating defenses by attacking off-balance defenders. He tends to favor his right hand, though, and will need to work on his ball-handling to become a more effective penetrator. While Richardson’s collection of dribble moves isn’t extensive, he does have a nice step-back jumper that he can use to create space and get his shot away.
Malachi’s top gear is certainly what’s worthwhile about him as an NBA prospect and it’s possible that he’ll grow into a third option or a sixth man on a good team at the next level, but there are plenty of red flags that make the likelihood of that rather small. While Richardson is capable of going on impressive streaks like he did in the second half against Virginia, he’s incredibly inconsistent and is one of the most inefficient scoring wings in the draft class.
Richardson is one of seven wing prospects that will enter the draft coming off of a season with an effective field goal percentage below 50 percent. Two of those players — Taurean Prince and Jaylen Brown — were much larger contributors in their respective offenses while the Syracuse guard is the lone prospect to have an eFG% under 50 percent and not cross the threshold for taking a high amount of his team’s shots. Two others wings who fell in that category this season — Malik Newman and Isaiah Briscoe — both announced they were returning to school this week.
Richardson made 35.3 percent of his 224 three-pointers as a freshman, far from an elite percentage, but what’s more concerning is his performance inside the arc where he shot a putrid 39.0 percent. According to Jonathan Givony over at DraftExpress, just three players in their database have been drafted after shooting below 40 percent on twos the season prior. There are likely multiple reasons for Richardson’s poor two-point percentage. The first is that only 20.9 percent of his total field goal attempts came at the rim while 24.8 percent of them were classified as two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math. He made only 23-of-102 (22.5 percent) such shots. The second reason is that Richardson isn’t strong enough to regularly finish through contact or bully his way to the rim, which results in him either flailing into a defender looking to draw a foul or pulling up for an inefficient mid-range jumper. That poor decision-making extends out to the three-point line where the 20-year old is willing to take ill-advised shots early in the clock as well.
As one of the Orange’s few scoring options in a seven man rotation, Richardson did have plenty of time to operate as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, which should come in handy in the NBA. However, in those situations, he’s much more active attempting to score than pass because he’s not an adept distributor at this stage, posting a higher turnover rate (14.0) than assist rate (12.8) as a freshman.
Defensively, Richardson has similar pluses and minuses. For starters, he has excellent physical tools for developing into a strong one-on-one defender. He has decent defensive instincts and he occasionally showed off quick hands when swiping away at balls as a help side defender, posting a 2.0 percent steal rate during his lone season at Syracuse.
While Richardson has the tools to develop into a good defender, his statistical production at Syracuse doesn’t measure up to the other wings in the class. No doubt, some of that is the product of his time spent in the Orange’s 2-3 zone, but Richardson didn’t always exert excellent effort and his lack of strength showed up on the defensive boards where he posted a reasonable, but unimpressive 12.1 defensive rebound rate. Having spent his freshman season learning the 2-3 zone, it’s not clear that he has good man-to-man fundamentals and recently there aren’t many defensive success stories from Syracuse at the next level (Hi, Carmelo!).
Malachi Richardson very well may be a first round pick in June’s NBA draft because he’s one of the few wings capable of developing into a quality off-the-dribble scorer from the position. However, his freshman production and inefficiency should make teams a bit skeptical about the likelihood that he ever rises to that ceiling. With Richardson, it feels like “good scorer” has become code for “made tough shots in big moments.” Sure, he hit some nice off the dribble three-pointers in the NCAA Tournament, but the rest of his freshman season suggests that those are more likely than not impressive outliers. Given his resume, Richardson feels much more like a second round flier prospect than a solid first round pick.