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Can Josh Richardson Play in the NBA?

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Can four years of consistent improvement lead to a chance to play on the biggest stage for one of the best players of the last decade in Knoxville?

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

On the eve of the SEC Tournamentwe professed our love for Josh Richardson on this blog.  We discussed his willingness to play point guard in his senior season when Donnie Tyndall's Vols needed him, and needed him for 36 minutes a night.  We put him in the conversation for the SEC's Most Valuable Player.  We looked his NCAA Tournament numbers, including his very best basketball in four March 2014 games; he averaged more points (19.3) in the big dance than any Tennessee player of the last decade.  This includes NBA mainstays C.J. Watson and Tobias Harris, as well as last year's draftees Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae.

But the biggest takeaway for all of us with Richardson was his natural progression.  A three-star kid from Oklahoma who was billed as a defensive stopper, Richardson didn't wow you early, nor did he come out of nowhere late.  He simply got better every single season, becoming a weapon on both ends of the floor by the end of his junior season and then Tennessee's only real weapon his senior year.  Here's the chart from that post in March again:

YEAR MIN PPG 3P% FT% AST STL
2012 16.0 2.9 23.7 64.0 0.7 0.5
2013 30.7 7.9 21.4 69.2 1.5 1.1
2014 30.3 10.3 34.0 79.3 1.5 0.7
2015 36.1 15.7 36.7 79.1 3.6 2.0
So now the question becomes, can his natural progression continue all the way into the NBA?

As can be the case with potential second round picks, opinions vary.  NBA.com does not have him in their mock.  DraftExpress has Richardson in the center of the second round, going 45th to, be still my heart, the Boston Celtics.  Last week Chad Ford had him going two picks later to Philadelphia in his mock draft at ESPN.com, citing "significant buzz" about Richardson on the workout circuit.  The Vol senior has recently worked out for Charlotte, Detroit, Memphis, and Philadelphia.

One of the most glowing reviews of Richardson came in February from Peachtree Hoops, SB Nation's Atlanta Hawks blog.  They compared Richardson and Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, a projected mid-first round pick.  For the first time in ten years, a Tennessee player could be hurt in the NBA Draft by his own team's performance in his final year in orange; Richardson had fewer opportunities to shine on the big stage this year as the Vols played .500 basketball.

At 6'6" Richardson is projected to be a two guard in the NBA.  As such, one could also overemphasize what he did last season because he had the ball in his hands so often, something we won't see on the next level.  I would expect Richardson to continue to excel on the defensive end first.  One of his most defining stretches of basketball came in Tennessee's run to the 2014 NCAA Tournament:

Here's what Tennessee's best defender and most outstanding player during the NCAA Tournament has done in the month of March:

  • Rod Odom, Vanderbilt - 13.7 PPG, 1 of 7, 4 points
  • Chris Denson, Auburn - 19.1 PPG, 1 of 10, 3 points
  • Jabari Brown, Missouri - 19.9 PPG, 1 of 10, 8 points
  • Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina - 13.4 PPG, 3 of 9, 7 points
  • Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa - 17.0 PPG, 3 of 15, 7 points
Richardson has regularly faced both opposing point guards and number one scorers during his college career.  In Cuonzo Martin's system he excelled in a rugged man-to-man defense; in Donnie Tyndall's he was encouraged to create turnovers more often from some zone looks and responded with the third-most steals in a single season in school history.

On the offensive end Richardson really flourished the last two years.  He benefited from playing with Jordan McRae in 2014, who drew plenty of attention from opposing defenses.  But in each of the last two seasons Richardson has excelled at getting around contact in the lane to finish plays, and knocking down a stop-and-pop 15 footer.  He's been working on his jumper even more in pre-draft workouts; a more consistent outside shot would leave no doubt about his ability to play in the league.

Richardson really was a jack of all trades during his Tennessee career, and a master defensively when not labored with 36 minutes in a high-pressure system.  His work ethic is proven by his consistent improvement through two different coaching staffs, both as the third option on a Sweet 16 team and the only option playing out of position on a .500 team.  If he continues to progress, especially offensively, I can see Richardson carving out the kind of career C.J. Watson has in the league with 18-24 minutes a night off the bench.  Richardson can be a steady rotation guy who's going to give you excellent defense when a more talented player has to sub out but the other team leaves their best player on the floor.  His offensive game by NBA standards would be solid but not spectacular at the moment.  But the way he matured in Knoxville, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him continue to develop and earn even more minutes along the way.

One thing's for sure:  he's got every Tennessee fan pulling hard for him.  We'll find out his fate together on Thursday night.