Josh Richardson is the leader the Miami Heat need

by David Ramil

The play was a completely meaningless one, an unraveled thread in the boring rug of a late-December NBA game. Josh Richardson went in one direction and a pass from Justise Winslow sailed away in another one. The Miami Heat would eventually build a commanding double-digit lead against the Bucks; the turnover shouldn’t matter but it did to Richardson. A timeout was called and the teammates exchanged glances. Winslow threw his hands up wondering what happened, saw Richardson’s shoulders sink, and anticipated what was next. He hurriedly pointed toward his chest. My bad, his lips read, taking blame for the errant throw. But by then it was already too late. He watched, equal parts concern and bemusement, as Richardson slunk away and accepted the burden, walking to the sideline with his arms tightened and fists balled, yelling to himself in a one-sided argument he’ll never win.

When asked after the game if he even remembered the play, Richardson didn’t need long to recall it. “Yeah. Yeah,” he said, head hanging low. “It was a floppy. He thought it was one thing and I, uh, went too early.” When told Winslow seemed to think it was his mistake, Richardson’s head raised back up. “Naw, it was on me. It was my fault. That’s why I was upset about it.”

Richardson calls the argument-for-one “self-talk.” Variations can include pointing at his head after a missed shot, or a punch on the thigh after a costly foul. In whatever form it takes, it’s been a part of his basketball life for as long as he can remember. “Sometimes, I yell at myself, ‘What are you doing?’ and I start thinking too much…I think I’ve actually gotten a lot better at it. And this year I’ve definitely put a lot more emphasis on trying to stay positive.” He pauses, looks down again, and adds, “But, it doesn’t always work.”

Work, and a dose of verbal self-castigation, is a significant part of why Richardson has reached this point. They were part of the package when the gangly youth from Edmond, Oklahoma, agreed to join coach Cuonzo Martin at Missouri State as the 246th-best prospect in the country in 2011. They were there when Martin was hired at the University of Tennessee and when Richardson followed him, despite a rotation filled with talented upperclassmen, especially present when he finally became the Volunteers’ top player as a senior. Still there when he would be selected in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft by Miami.

That version of the Heat didn’t expect much from Richardson. They selected Winslow in the draft lottery that same year, already had proven veterans like Goran Dragić and Luol Deng on the roster, as well as the hall-of-fame talents of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But today, Winslow is finally thriving after years of struggling to find his place. Dragić is recovering from knee surgery with his future in Miami rumored to be in doubt. Deng is in Minnesota, a shell of who he once was. Bosh was forced, too soon, into retirement, and Wade, at 37 years old, will be there soon enough. All the while, Richardson has fought — often with himself — and yelled his way into becoming Miami’s best player.

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The Richardson family has always lived by the motto of working hard to make dreams become reality and Alice Richardson, Josh’s mother has borne witness to her son’s constant drive. Josh’s father, Michael, is a retired firefighter. Alice is a former collegiate athlete and Division I referee, a retired member of the United States Air Force Reserves, a pastor, speaker, and author. “But of all my titles, ‘Mom’ is the one I like best,” she says with a chuckle during a phone interview with The Step Back.

As the best partnerships often do, each parent emphasized their own strengths when it came to raising Josh. Michael taught his son the names of athletes in football, baseball as well as basketball, fostering a love of the greats who played before him. Alice ‘knew the mechanics of the game,’ relying on her military background and deep faith to help build her son’s commitment to the work. The combination proved effective. “My husband and I always tried — and continue to try — to provide support and guidance for our children, regardless of what area of life it was. Whether it was how to share with one another, dressing properly, brushing your teeth or playing sports, we wanted them to understand there was a proper way. This is a biblical concept, too. ‘Whatever you find to do, do it with all your might.’ Plus, I’m military and so those things just kind of went hand-in-hand, to do everything with all of your might.”

As you would expect, Alice speaks glowingly of her son but there’s also an underlying appreciation of Josh’s dedication that goes beyond any maternal instinct. She’s quick to point out that her son wasn’t perfect but she marvels at how he embraced the work at an early age. That she could just talk to him and he would listen, that he would understand and apply the lessons he’d learn — eminently coachable, just as he would be for Martin and Donnie Tyndall at Tennessee and, later, Erik Spoelstra in Miami.

Even as he currently leads the University of Missouri men’s basketball team, Martin took time from his schedule to speak glowingly of his former player. He waxed at length about Richardson’s growth at Tennessee, about his well-rounded personality, about his approach to the game. As for an example of Richardson’s work ethic, he paused before finally replying, “At Tennessee, Josh’s mom would come in and rebound for her son at night.” Martin’s voice grows more animated as he describes the late sessions — Josh shooting, Alice rebounding — neither advertising their presence because it wasn’t the attention they wanted, just the opportunity to improve. “But that’s what makes him good…what he got from home.” The blueprint for Richardson’s success, says Martin, was drawn from those long nights.

It was that type of persistence that drew Martin to the low-ranked prospect out of Santa Fe High School in Edmond. There were other, more talented players, said Martin, but it was the type of person Richardson was off the floor that made him stand apart from his peers. Martin took a chance and the gamble paid off.

There were challenges for Richardson when he first arrived at Tennessee, particularly as a scorer. “That’s a nice way of putting it,” says Martin with a laugh. Jeronne Maymon, a teammate of Richardson’s at Tennessee who now works with Martin as a graduate assistant coach, delves deeper. “Josh couldn’t make a shot. He had this hitch, and he would tilt his head to the right – no, the left — and bring the ball up from his hip, like a wind-up jumper.” When Richardson is asked about it today, he slaps his head and feigns anger at his friend for revealing this uncovered artifact from his past. He begins to demonstrate, dipping his shoulder and awkwardly winding his hip before shuddering at the memory of shots that wouldn’t fall. “Yeah, it was ugly.”

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Martin made his players earn their minutes, regardless of their ranking and previous accolades. And with his shooting so…inconsistent, it was Richardson’s focus on defense that led to his occasional minutes. “We needed him to be that guy that shut down other wings. And he did. And he took pride in it,” says Martin. There was also a loaded roster, one that featured Maymon, as well as future NBA players Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae, “one of the top scorers in the country,” recalls Martin. It was easy for Richardson to make defense a priority with so many other players capable of carrying the burden of offense. Richardson could get lost in each matchup, finding ways to harass players both smaller and bigger.

By Richardson’s senior year, however, the talented upperclassmen that carried the Volunteers offensively had moved on. Martin, too, had resigned, taking a position at the University of California in Berkeley. Under the newly-hired Tyndall, it was up to Richardson to finally become as well-rounded on the court as he was off of it.

“As a senior, he had to be the guy,” says Martin, who watched Richardson at his new post and continues to do so today. “He did a great job stepping up and scoring for that team, being a leader and showcasing all of his tools.” Adds Maymon, who chats regularly with Richardson via a group text of former Volunteers’ players. “I think it kinda took him awhile to realize he had arrived. By midway through his sophomore year, he started developing a legit offensive game. By his senior year, he was really polishing up his offensive abilities. He put in the work on his own, [and it] gave him that confidence of seeing himself grow as a shooter. He would stay late after practice. Come in early the next day. Whatever the case, whatever it took. He can accomplish anything he puts his mind to.”

Back in September of 2018, it’s Media Day in Miami, hours before the unexpected pizza is delivered, a Trojan horse composed of grease-stained cardboard. The Heat have been solid in recent seasons, fielding a deep, good-to-great roster that is viewed as the team’s strength, in combination with a culture cultivated on the foundation of hard work.

Pundits see a team that is neither contending nor rebuilding, simply existing to toil along the basketball landscape. Spoelstra views his team as capable of blending together to form a cohesive, and dangerous, unit. He addresses reporters first and publicly declares, and perhaps even privately believes, that the Heat can be a playoff-contending team.

“The way this league is going,” he says from the podium, “you better have some versatility, some good perimeter play. You better have guys that can do multiple things, to defend multiple players. We’re excited about this group. This league is about flexibility, about speed, about adaptability and we have a lot of that.”

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Fans of the team are accustomed to more. Consider the franchise’s three titles, its five trips to the Finals and the 24 seasons since Pat Riley joined the team’s front office, during which Miami has made the playoffs in all but five of them. Moreover, since Riley’s tenure began almost a quarter-century ago, the Heat has had either Alonzo Mourning or Wade on the roster for all but three seasons, a superstar to help define the team’s ethos of embracing the daily grind.

Positivity, however, is the norm on Media Day and Spoelstra certainly delivers. Richardson, he says, is capable of reaching new heights and can emerge as the star fans have been craving. “The thing that he has is a coaching staff that supports him, believes in him. Everybody wants him to take that next step and that’s incredibly empowering for a young player. You see the biggest jumps for most players coming into their third, fourth year, and you saw the type of jump he made last year when he was able to play a full season and was healthy. You’ve heard me say this before; I don’t put ceilings on players. We want them to accomplish their dreams. Whatever they’re thinking about or dreaming about, we want to be able to give them a platform to go get it. I see no reason why he can’t get to another level.”

Meanwhile, there’s an underlying tension at odds with what is normally a celebratory event. As a group of players record promotional videos and strike various poses down on the practice floor, there are reports that just above them, away from the exchanges with reporters and the forced smiles, the Heat brass is working intensely to acquire Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It casts a shadow on everything, one darkened when a second group, which includes Richardson, is delayed from participating in selected events. As the first wave of players moves on, time slows to a crawl, and gathered media members grow restless awaiting delivery of either the second wave of players or news of a consummated deal. Pizzas arrive instead– a gift from the Heat front office that long-time reporters claim is the first of its kind — and there’s something almost conspiratorial melted into each slice. Seen one way, it is a means of giving thanks for our patience as the kinks of a schedule are worked out. A more jaded view is that it serves as a plea to accept the praise from Spoelstra and others at face value, that there’s nothing more to see here even as the front office actively tries to improve the roster. The pizzas are consumed unsatisfyingly and without a clear answer. Eventually, Richardson and the last group of players make their way to the few media members that have waited it out. The trade is never addressed and Butler is shipped out to Philadelphia a few weeks later.

But even in the rubble of a deal that was never finalized lies the notion that acquiring Butler was necessary. Butler has forced his way out of Chicago and Minnesota and there are rumors, however overstated, that the 76ers’ young players are struggling to adjust to his more acerbic qualities. Still, for all of the talk of Butler’s temperamental nature, he might bring something that is currently lacking on the Heat roster. The Heat locker room is a generally harmonious place, but it might be worth disrupting that chemistry to add something new and potentially volatile to the mix.

After five title runs and the turmoil of the previous two seasons in Chicago and Cleveland, Wade has returned home with a refreshed perspective. He understands that without the realistic hope of a title, Miami’s focus must shift toward the potential growth of its players, that the discrepancy in talent between the Golden State Warriors and the Heat is too great to overcome. There is an opportunity for someone from the team’s young core to reach new levels of success. They simply have to take it.

“The goal is, when you have a young team like we have in that locker room, is to build it, so that one day, those guys are at that level,” said Wade at Media Day. “Last year, we saw Goran get that opportunity [to be an All-Star]. Maybe some other guys get that nod, or get that confidence to get to that level, where they see they can be at that All-Star level. You got 17,000 All-Stars in the Western Conference anyway, so somebody can emerge. I think it’s the time for these young guys, when you talk about J-Rich, you talk about Justise, they should be looking at the Eastern Conference as open from that standpoint. It’s a new wave coming in.”

There are doubts that Richardson can be that type of player. In sharp contrast to Butler or perhaps even a younger Wade, Richardson is generally liked, quiet and soft-spoken. He is a self-described introvert that likes to feel new people out before beginning the journey toward trust. He is curious and open about his interests, buoyant about his affinity for SpongeBob Squarepants (“That show never gets old!”), or in describing the trick to eating Oreo cookies with a fork (“Genius!”) because it keeps your fingers dry as you dip them in milk.

But he also understands what’s at stake here, that even at just 25 years old and only in his fourth season, one’s legacy still matters. “Honestly, I just don’t want to look back [on my career] and think, ‘I could’ve worked harder,’ or, ‘I could’ve done this or that.’ I just want to leave it all out there.”

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Asking Richardson to be the team’s best player has been a mixed bag. While he leads the team in scoring and remains a good passer and rebounder, he’s admitted that in expending so much energy as a scorer and playmaker, his defense has struggled. In a season-opening loss to the Orlando Magic, Richardson dribbled the ball out of bounds as the game clock wound down. There was no time for self-talk then, but, after the game, as Richardson walked back to the visiting locker room of the Amway Center with his shoulders slumped and a towel draped over his head, who knows what might have been said?

“It hasn’t been that smooth, all rainbows and flowers or nothing like that,” he says.

The questions about Richardson’s ability to lead the team date back to his time with Martin at Tennessee. The coach admits that he drove Richardson hard but quickly adds that it was an effort he was willing to make because he recognized a potential to play the game at its highest level. “He was a fun guy to be around,” says Martin, “but he had to get…that edge.” Martin believes that Richardson’s defense helped sharpen it with the Volunteers, but it will be his desire to win that makes it truly deadly. Richardson, he adds, has a “point guard’s mentality,” but that if he were to focus on his scoring more, he could easily average 25 points per game.

Gerald Green, now with the Houston Rockets, saw Richardson’s potential even as a rookie when they were teammates during the 2015-16 season. “You could just tell, man,” said Green before a recent game in Orlando. “He was like a kid, always asking questions, like a sponge, always working on his game. I mean, hell, he ended up taking some of my time! But it was one of those things where I was actually excited that he was growing the way he was, ‘cause I never thought he would develop that fast. Just to see that happen, it was kinda like, ‘Y’know, young fella? You go ahead. I don’t even trip.’”

When asked if Richardson has star potential, Green didn’t flinch in his belief. He discounted any struggles Richardson might have had in the clutch by pointing out several current All-Stars aren’t asked to take a team’s biggest shots. “It’s not about buzzer beaters. It’s about winning, especially because he can do so much on the floor.” As Green lists Richardson’s attributes, he admits he still follows his progress from afar, then starts again, now describing Richardson’s emotional development. “Josh is always locked in and focused. He’s never gonna be emotionally too high or too low. For a guy to be that young that gets it that quick..?” he leaves the question hanging as he shakes his head. “Just imagine when he’s gonna be 28, 29 years old! I’m tellin’ you, you should want someone like that to lead your team.”

His teammates, coaches and even opponents don’t question his qualifications. Neither, of course, does his mother. Alice’s voice tightens as she defends her son, pointing out that he has played through injury to be there for his team. “They don’t know how much my son is in pain. Now, this might just be a mother’s perspective, but when you talk about leadership, that’s leadership,” she says, her voice cracking just slightly.

Against the Bucks in late December, the crowd cheered loudest when Wade entered the game. And it was Wade, making shots during key stretches of the fourth quarter as he so often has over his 16-year career, that left the lasting impression on fans as they walked out into the cool breeze along Biscayne Bay. Meanwhile, Richardson quietly led the team in scoring and provided crucial defense to help hold Milwaukee to just 87 points. After the game, it was clear to Richardson, that it was the win, and not individual recognition, which mattered most to him.

There is more than one type of leader and what may work for Butler — or may not, if you ask his former Minnesota teammates — simply isn’t Richardson’s style. One of the oft-repeated platitudes from last September’s Media Day, even as Richardson’s future with the team was more precarious than ever, was the idea that if everyone on the roster played their part, then the lack of a “superstar,” and whatever that term implies, doesn’t really matter. In watching Wade flourish in the closing moments of games, you can’t overlook that it’s Richardson’s steady play that often puts Miami in the position to win at all. Considering the relative value of his contract, his potential as a all-NBA defender and All-Star, you might think it easy to appreciate that a second-round draft pick would accomplish everything he has. He is an unexpected gift, and yet his critics can’t seem to overlook that the bow on top is slightly off-center.

It’s easy, then, to go to back to childhood lessons in Edmond, or late-night workouts in Tennessee and to the woman who was always there with a preacher’s timbre, a soldier’s discipline and a mother’s love. Alice believes that a trade to Minnesota didn’t happen because Josh is in Miami for a purpose: to carry the team to victory. And what of those that lack the faith that her son has the temperament to dominate a game? After a long pause, Alice answers, “Whatever it’s going to take to lead this team, to help this team, my son has in him. Whatever it takes…if that means being a little selfish, then I think he can do that. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

David Ramil is a credentialed writer whose words about basketball have been published at VICE, SB Nation, and several FanSided sites among others. You can read his observations on the NBA and life in general via Twitter at @dramil13.