As the Heat walked off the court Tuesday following its sixth consecutive home loss, Dwyane Wade put his arm around a frustrated Josh Richardson.
Wade had just passed up a contested two-point jumper to find Richardson for a wide-open three-point shot that would have won the Heat the game. Instead, Richardson’s shot rolled off the rim and Miami lost to the struggling Hawks 115-113 to fall to 7-13 this season.
“It’s trying to continue to build him to be hopefully the focal point of this franchise,” Wade said. “All year, he’s had big shots and big moments, and I’ve gotten out of his way on a lot of them. I had an opportunity at that point where I had an open shot after I shot faked him, but I decided to go to the young fella for him to bring it home for us. And I would do it again and again.”
Wade has already hit plenty of game-winners during his career. This season has been about empowering the 25-year-old Richardson
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“It was a great response when I watched Dwyane look at him because he’s been there before, man,” Heat president Pat Riley said of Wade consoling Richardson after the missed game-winner. “Dwyane has been there. He’s been through those things.”
But Richardson is still learning how to deal with those things, with Miami hoping to snap its six-game home losing skid Friday against the Pelicans. After emerging as the Heat’s top perimeter defender last season, the 6-6 wing player has been asked to take on a bigger offensive role in his fourth NBA season.
Usually that means two or three more shots per game, as a player gradually transitions into becoming one of the team’s go-to offensive options. For Richardson, it’s meant going from averaging the fourth-most shot attempts on the team last season to averaging nearly three more shot attempts than anybody else on the roster this season.
“J-Rich, in the last couple of years, he’s been very effective on the court for 28 to 30 minutes per game,” Riley said. “In a lot of ways, he basically has evolved to this point to be trusted by coach to be out there longer, to be involved in more actions than just running offense and living off what he gets on offense. So you can direct certain things to his skill set and they’re doing that.”
Richardson’s usage numbers are up across the board from 2017-18. His offensive touches have jumped from 57.2 to a team-high 75.3 this season, his usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while on the court) has spiked from 17.5 percent to 23.2 percent this season, and he’s averaging a team-high 16.4 shot attempts after finishing last season at 10.9.
The results have been encouraging early on, with Richardson averaging a team-high 20.5 points on 43.3 percent shooting from the field and 42.2 percent shooting from three-point range to go with 4.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals. Richardson also has a team-best plus-minus of plus-44, with the Heat outscored by 82 points when he’s not been on the court this season.
Taking on more responsibility on the offensive end comes with its ups and its downs, though. It also comes with a mentality that Richardson isn’t used to playing with on the NBA level.
“It’s tough at points when I miss a couple and I got to keep going and I got to keep attacking for our team to be the best it can be,” Richardson said. “So sometimes I find myself having to remind myself to keep going, keep trying, keep working. But I think I’m getting a lot more used to it.”.
The Heat anticipated Richardson would need time to prepare this bigger role, so coach Erik Spoelstra flew to Santa Barbara, California, to meet with him in June. The message was, “I’m going to have to be more consistent and aggressive this season and I have to be more of a leader to the team and be more of just an even-keeled consistent presence,” Richardson recalls.
“Just to set the tone of what his summer focus should be about,” Spoelstra said when asked why he felt that offseason meeting was necessary. “You don’t want to be a wandering generality in those five months away from the team. Then if you’re trying to take another big step forward and truly be a meaningful specific, you got to get to work. And this summer would require a different level of focus and intensity and purpose to his work.”
While Richardson is producing career-best offensive numbers, the wins have not followed. Miami currently owns the league’s sixth-worst record at 7-13.
“You got to make sure if you become that kind of scorer that the result is winning,” Riley said. “That’s not happening right now to the level we want, but he has had some outrageous games for us that we’ve won. Until you can carry a team through certain situations to make sure they keep their head above water, a lot of that is empty. So I would like to see him play with an absolute bit more fire and more force and be more of a leader.”
That’s the question that still needs to be answered when it comes to Richardson: Can he be the No. 1 offensive option on a winning team?
It’s way too early to make a final judgment just 20 games into his first season as a primary option. But it’s not too early to realize that Richardson has room to grow in this new role, which is expected.
“I can tell you that when Dwyane was 25 years old or 26 years old, he wasn’t fun to be around. He was not fun to be around after a loss,” Riley said. “He was a non-bullshit guy. He was a competitor and he was an assassin. In practice after a loss, forget it. He would come and work, and he would be pissed. While he still had a pretty level head then, that is where Josh needs to get to.
“You either have it or you don’t — Kobe [Bryant] had it, Dwyane had it. I’m talking about those cold-blooded players. They would come out the next day in practice win or lose, they’re the first one on the court and demanding their teammates go harder, go harder, go harder.”
That would seem to be out of Richardson’s comfort zone. When asked which music artist best represents his off-court personality, Richardson (a music aficionado) pointed to rapper Wiz Khalifa because “he’s just chill, he’s always kicking it. Whenever you see him, he’s always chillin’, laughing. He’s never super serious. He just kind of takes life for what it is.”
On the court, Richardson has made an effort to assume a more assertive mentality. Part of that means playing the second-most fourth quarter minutes in the NBA this season with 202 and having the confidence to take 90 fourth-quarter shots (32 more than anybody else on the Heat’s roster).
“It’s a big difference,” Richardson said when asked about his mentality on the court versus his laid-back approach to life off the court. “I just know what time it is. When it gets inside that 94, I know it’s go time. I know things are real serious.”
That mindset has resulted in a few take-over performances like Richardson’s 12-point fourth quarter in a win over the Bulls last Friday and his 13-point fourth quarter in a comeback win over the Wizards on Oct. 18. For the season, he’s averaging 6.2 points on an efficient 50 percent shooting from the field and 43.6 percent shooting on threes in the fourth quarter.
“Ultimately, what you want in this profession are different and new challenges every year, and to push yourself and broaden your horizons,” Spoelstra said. “This is an example of that. Josh has improved every single year and he had a great summer this year of work. We all felt he was ready for another big step without us having to define exactly what that is.
“It’s on the court, it’s leadership behind the scenes, it’s helping impose his competitive will on this group. Sometimes those things are uncomfortable when you take steps forward like that. I think that’s where you really have an opportunity to grow as a player.”
It’s easy to forget, though, Richardson has already exceeded almost all expectations that surrounded him when he first entered the league as the 40th overall pick in the second round of the 2015 draft. He’s averaging more points per game this season than any other second-round pick currently playing in the NBA.
Plus, Richardson has one of best value contracts in the league. He’s in the first season of a four-year, $42 million extension he signed last offseason, which is a big reason why he’s one of the Heat’s top assets and was reportedly part of the conversation when Miami was discussing a trade for Jimmy Butler with the Timberwolves earlier this season.
So yes, Richardson is already one of the most productive second-round picks in team history. But the Heat believes there’s still untapped potential to explore, and that’s exactly what it’s doing by putting Richardson at the center of its offense.
“That’s how players improve,” Riley said. “They improve, they get better and they go to another level because defenders and game plans force their talent to another level, period. If you don’t go to another level, then you shrink. I think J-Rich has the mental toughness to get to that level.”