March 27, 2016. The point in the sports calendar when only college basketball's brightest stars continue to shine. As a new month dawned and the NCAA men's basketball tournament prepared to dwindle down to its "Final Four," the Syracuse Orange seemed poised to be left out of the fold again. Until they weren't. Malachi Richardson happened.
Richardson, a freshman starting two-guard, poured 21 of his 23 points against Virginia in the second half of their elite eight matchup. Syracuse trailed by as much as 16 late in the game until Malachi went full front-line scorer mode pouring on bucket after bucket on the number one team in their corner of the bracket. The freshman led his team, ranked 10th in the midwest and who many thought shouldn't have made the tourney at all, from the brink to an unimaginable appearance in Houston for the Final Four where they fell in the national semifinal to North Carolina.
On a team built on a steady core of veterans, Richardson's youth shined for periods throughout his freshman and now lone season in central New York. He turned 20 in January. He stands at 6'6", 200 pounds. In 37 games as part of an essential six-man rotation he averaged 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.2 steals per on 37% shooting from the field with a 35% clip outside the arc.
Consistency wasn't his forte but when 'Cuse needed him, Richardson stepped to a height sweeping above anyone who shared the court with him. He showed guts, tenacity, and a ruthless competitiveness. His Virginia performance was just days after a sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga, where he contributed five points to the back and forth second half scrap following the Orange overcoming a ten point deficit early.
Following the loss to UNC, Richardson took advantage of new rules allowing college players to go to the NBA combine before they sign an agent and test the waters while having the option to return to school. It didn't take long for him to realize that he'd be a higher selection than anyone could've imagined before the season and quickly after that he was one of 16 to be invited to the draft in Brooklyn which points towards a borderline-lottery selection.
At his best he even seemed to show shades of a familiar face, a Celtics legend, Paul Pierce. Specifically with the report that he was shouting "they can't guard me" even when faced with the ACC's top defender on him in the Virginia game. Beholding the shooting, aggressiveness, and craftiness on the ball that he exploited at his best; the parallels may be there. But to learn more, there's no better person to consult than someone who watched him play first-hand at every game.
Matt Schneidman, now interning with the New York Post, covered the Syracuse Orange's 2016 campaign for The Daily Orange from the Bahamas to Houston. He provided excellent insight on his season, upside, path to the draft, and abilities.
Bobby Manning: Setting the table, from watching him for a whole season in Syracuse what were Malachi's greatest strengths as a player that helped him lead the team to the Final 4 with Michael Gbinije?
Matt Schneidman: He can really score in a number of ways, which he showed when he put the team on his back in the second half against Virginia. His first step was explosive enough to blow by a majority of defenders at the college level and when he's hot from deep, there's nobody that can guard him on the perimeter.
B.M.: At his best Malachi seemed to be unstoppable but he was streaky for much of the season as well, what do you think was a factor in the stretches where he was getting off his game?
M.S.: It seemed to be just a matter of the ball not going through the hoop. After he went 0-for-11 from 3 against St. John's I approached him in the locker room and asked if he'd ever had as bad of a performance. He said no, but that it wouldn't deter him from taking those same shots again. That's the way shooters are, even if they have cold streaks sometimes.
B.M.: He's so young so it's hard to envision what kind of player he truly is with so few years at the professional level, but I see you called him a shooter. Is that what you expect him to be as a player or do you see room for growth elsewhere?
M.S.: Well first off, he has no years at the professional level. And just because he's a shooter doesn't mean he can't grow elsewhere. He's primarily a shooter and that's what he'll be in the NBA - a two-guard probably coming off the bench to start his career. But he can develop into a more well-rounded player like he did as this past season progressed.
B.M.: Were you surprised his pushed to the NBA after a year? What, outside of course money, do you think was the motivating factor?
M.S.: No, after the Virginia game I wasn't surprised that he decided to go pro. The big thing he wanted was a first-round guarantee. I'd assume he got that and he was right to make sure he was going to be taken in the first 30 picks before declaring. Now it seems as if he'll go even higher, possible even in the lottery.
B.M.: Did you see Malachi's NBA workouts in person? The word was that those gave him a major boost as he impressed several camps in interviews and on the court. What went so well for him there?
M.S.: No I didn't. The only thing I saw was him knocking down a couple 3s in a row at ASM pro day in Las Vegas. I wish I could go to Vegas.
B.M.: Now lets tie the Celtics into this. Over the last few seasons Brad Stevens has pushed a pace-and-space offensive style that has required shooting personnel that they just haven't had. Despite being near the top of the league in three-point shooting volume since 2013 they've been near the bottom in percentage. How could Malachi help the team spread the floor more effectively?
M.S.: Well he shot just over 35 percent from 3 so if that stays the same it wouldn't help that much. He, and the Celtics. would get a lot more out of season one if he upped that to 40 percent. And Richardson often waited to attack the rim until after his shot wasn't falling. I think he should mix it up a little to be less predictable and create even more space off the dribble than he's capable of doing.
B.M.: For all these improvements he seemingly has to make to be impactful in the NBA, why do you think he's being so highly regarded ahead of Thursday?
M.S.: A lot of guys are projected so high because of their combination of upside and what they've already shown. Richardson has a pretty good combination of the two, and add on the fact that he's still only 20 years old.
B.M.: That upside is very intriguing. Do you think his success in the big moments in March contributed as well? And with that, what do you see his upside as?
M.S.: I think that's what contributed to his initial appearance on many draft boards because he wasn't showing up on them before the Virginia game. Common belief was that he was going to stay in school and then some speculation started to surface among the Syracuse community that he'd leave. I think his upside is he can become even more of a knockdown shooter since he only shot 35.3 percent this season, and he can take care of the ball mroe which would make him a lot more effective taking the ball to the hoop.
B.M.: The defense scares people coming out of the zone but he and Gbinije apparently fought hard on that end in scrimmages. Do you see it being a major issue going from zone to man?
M.S.: No, not for a guy of his athleticism, who should have no problem staying with a man instead of an area.
B.M.: Alright to wrap this up, the Paul Pierce comparisons have been out there. Their freshman numbers are similar. Won't go as far as to say he's the next Pierce but I do see some parallels. Do you?
M.S.: I think comparisons to players three or less years into the league are more appropriate. Pierce simply comes from a different era and his freshman numbers at Kansas can in no way, shape or form be compared to Richardson's at Syracuse. You can say their both good shooters, but Pierce is a Hall of Famer and Richardson still faces questions about the consistency of his 3-ball at the age of 20. So I'm not even going to try and draw parallels because you could do that with any two players in history.
B.M.: He got a draft invite with about 14-15 others so far. Is he worth a lottery pick?
M.S.: I think so, at least toward the back end of the lottery. This isn't a particularly strong draft and he's arguably the second-best pure shooting guard behind Buddy Hield. A lot of teams will be looking for shooters and even though guys like Jamal Murray and Jaylen Brown can shoot as well and will go higher, Richardson could still sneak into the top 14.
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