Malachi Richardson was never supposed to be a one-and-done. Even as a McDonald's All-American, the Syracuse wing spent nearly the entirety of his freshman season without seeing his name in mock drafts. As the Orange lost five of their last six before Selection Sunday, it appeared Syracuse would miss the NCAA Tournament and Richardson would be back for his sophomore season.
Instead, Syracuse made the field of 68 with the lowest RPI for a team ever granted an at-large bid, and Richardson used the opportunity to put himself squarely on the radar of NBA talent evaluators. His breakthrough came in the Elite Eight against top-seeded Virginia, when he scored 21 second-half points to push Syracuse into the Final Four as a No. 10 seed. Suddenly, there were whispers that he could be a first round pick.
At this point, it's easy to make the case that Richardson is the draft's hottest name this side of Marquese Chriss. The hype reached a new level at an agency workout this week in Las Vegas.
A league scout on Richardson's workout: "Phenomenal. It looked like last year's Porzingis workout. I'm hearing he's going in the Top 10."— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) June 7, 2016
Richardson is now all the way up to No. 13 on Chad Ford's Big Board after being completely absent until April 26. The draft combine rumors that he was set for a first round guarantee no longer seem so presumptive. While outlets like DraftExpress still have him just outside round one, there are a growing number of indications Richardson is riding a wave of momentum two weeks ahead of the draft.
The suddenness of Richardson's rise is jarring, but it's not the only thing that makes his draft stock particularly compelling. Richardson is finding himself at the center of the longest running debate in the NBA: the eye test vs. analytics. Simply put, Richardson has the look of an NBA wing, the numbers just don't back it up.
Richardson's appeal starts with his size. At 6'6, 200 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, he has the ideal frame for an NBA wing. That length helped him grab 42 steals within Syracuse's zone, and could make him the type of perimeter defender who can switch pick-and-rolls and defend multiple positions despite only being considered average athletically.
The other thing Richardson has going for him is a quick and smooth shooting stroke. He hit 35.3 percent of 6.1 attempts per game from three this year, and he did it while showcasing NBA range. His shooting motion is so fluid that it's easy to envision him being a better shooter in the NBA than he was at Syracuse.
In a league that is increasingly valuing length and shooting, Richardson seems like a perfect fit. In a draft that is already light on wings, he looks like a safe first round pick. But dig a little deeper and Richardson's flaws start to become apparent. The New Jersey native looks like a rough outline of an NBA wing, but the picture is far from complete.
Richardson's biggest red flag is his 39 percent mark on two-pointers, which is the lowest of any projected pick in the 2016 draft. That number is dragged down by Richardson's inability to convert jump shots inside the arc. He finished the season 14-of-59 — or 23.7 percent — on two-point jump shots.
Put it all together and Richardson's 51.1 true shooting percentage is "the second lowest rate of any collegiate player projected to be drafted," according to DraftExpress. That's even a tick below Jaylen Brown, the stronger, more athletic Cal wing who only made 30 three-pointers (at 29 percent) compared to Richardson's 79.
The numbers reveal a player who doesn't have a great feel for the game and often tries to play outside of himself. It shows a player who doesn't have great explosiveness and someone who is too willing to settle for any look instead of helping his team work for a good look.
One thing that jumped out at Syracuse was Richardson's willingness to stop the ball and size up his defender. Granted, the Orange often needed someone to accept the burden of creating looks, but Richardson won't be able to get away with it in the NBA. Even when it worked it wasn't always pretty:
Despite how damning a number like Richardson's true shooting percentage appears, it's still easy enough to talk yourself into him as a top 20 pick in this draft. He's longer and more athletic than Jamal Murray. He's younger and bigger than Buddy Hield. He shoots better than Jaylen Brown. He much more physically developed than Furkan Korkmaz.
Richardson has his shortcomings as a player, but so does everyone else in the 2016 NBA Draft. He won't be able to force possessions in the pros like he did in college, but that could help him slide into a more structured role. If Richardson is only focusing on what he does well, the tools are there for an effective role player in the NBA.
It's just going to require a leap of faith by one team, because the results behind his freshman year at Syracuse left a lot to be desired.