Richardson has salvaged Vols’ season with canny conversion to the point

Two weeks into fall practice, a tough day of drills and scrimmaging almost complete, Tennessee guard Josh Richardson made a request that probably salvaged the Vols’ season. By this time, the rag-tag bunch of recruits coach Donnie Tyndall and has staff had to scramble and toss together last May had already been prophesied for doom by the experts—14th in the Southeastern Conference by one major preseason publication, 13th by the media that covers the league.

Perhaps if the people who made those predictions had been there the October day Richardson asked to finish out a scrimmage playing point guard, they might not have forecast such a dire outcome for Tennessee’s season. Because from that very day, Tyndall—worried about who would run his team and trying to convert junior college transfer Kevin Punter from a shooting guard whose specialty was the mid-range game to the point—knew he was on to something.

“It was like a 12-minute scrimmage,” Tyndall recalled on Tuesday night, after Richardson and his 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and just one turnover against 19th-ranked Arkansas’s withering full-court pressure helped engineer a 74-69 upset. “I could tell he liked it. And I’m telling you, from then on we’ve never looked back. We’ve just given him the ball.

“Kevin, truth be told, probably didn’t want to play it. He would’ve. But Josh wants to play the point. And it’s been a huge deal. I say this with all sincerity—I’m stunned at the job he’s doing. Not as a player, but at that position. It’s been unbelievable.”

It turns out, Richardson, who never—think about that, never—had played point guard before, at any level of basketball, is genetically hard-wired to play the position. The man his teammates call “Breezy” for his cool demeanor has always been a laid back kind of dude. He plays piano, for Pete’s sake. That should have tipped off somebody, somewhere. When Richardson wants to relax, he sits down and tickles the ivories like some kind of jazz cat, all smooth and mellow.

Lately, that’s the way Richardson has been playing point guard. All smooth and mellow. It didn’t start out that way. In his first game, and in fairness, it was against VCU’s frenetic “Havoc” pressure, he committed seven turnovers. He tossed the ball away five times against Marquette, six against East Tennessee State. But in between Richardson has turned himself into a sure-handed point guard.

Through this season’s 14 games, Richardson has been dropping hints, showing signs. Some none too subtle—witness his eight assists and two turnovers against Tennessee State, and others for which you had to be watching carefully to spot.

Take last week’s road win at Mississippi State, where Richardson made a play that clearly illustrated his conversion from designated defender as a freshman to acrobatic scorer as a junior on last season’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 team to point guard was complete.

In the second half, Richardson came off a flat ball screen and headed for the rim, but as he recalls the play with a chuckle, “I jumped from too far. I misjudged the rim.”

The result: he air-balled a layup, but undaunted by that seemingly embarrassing play, he grabbed his own miss, and still in the air, turned, saw freshman Detrick Mostella behind the 3-point line on the left side of the court and fired out a perfect pass. Wide open, Mostella banged in a 3 that began the process of separation from the pesky Bulldogs and led to an important road victory.

Besides being Mr. Cool, how has Richardson made this impressive transformation? He’s coachable, and there’s no underestimating how important that can be.

“He’s receptive,” Tyndall said. “When you grade him or critique him, he doesn’t hide from it.”

That’s because Richardson does plenty of film work on his own, and he takes notes, too. “So I can figure out what I’m doing wrong,” he said. “Make better decisions.”

Confidence—albeit the quiet, not boisterous kind—also plays a role. “I just stay calm,” Richardson said. “A lot of people get sped up, which gets them out of their spots. I trust my ball handling enough to be able to get to where I want to on the court.”

Richardson’s teammates have noticed. And they’re deriving their own quiet strength from him. Of anyone else on this team, Armani Moore knows how hard it is to be a point guard at the power conference level. He was a pretty good one in high school and recruited by former coach Cuonzo Martin to play the position. But a half dozen or so games into his freshman season, it was obvious Moore was not a point guard. These days, he’s excelling as a 6-foot-4 four man, ala former Vol hero Dane Bradshaw, a position from which he’s observed Richardson’s handiwork first hand.

“Josh, he’s able to adapt to any situation,” Moore said. “He’s been doing a great job at the point. But more importantly, he’s stepping up and being a leader.”

Asked whether he’d ever seen or heard of a natural scoring guard making such a canny conversion to the point so late in his career, Tyndall shakes his head. “I think maybe one year, coach [Rick] Pitino tried to move Tony Delk to the point at Kentucky for a while. But it didn’t stick. Rick had to slide him right back over.”

Not so for Richardson, who some people believe has turned himself into an NBA prospect, given his length (6-6), defensive prowess, and now his ability to play two positions.

“Yeah, I think he’s got a chance to be an NBA player,” Tyndall said. “I’m not surprised at how well he’s playing, but I am surprised by how well he’s running out team. He makes everyone else better.”

And that, NBA scouts will tell you, is a vital trait that the man called Breezy has clearly demonstrated, saving the Vols’ season in the process.

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