CHICAGO – Known for his attention to detail pertaining to his outfits, D.J. Richardson looked sharp for last week’s Big Ten Media Day.
His style was certainly appropriate for the event, but he didn’t play it safe either. He wore a white, gray and black-checkered dress shirt with a hint of red, matching his tie and a black vest to package it all together.
It was a confident look. And why shouldn’t he be self-assured? The senior guard attended Media Day last year, so the host of reporters and questions didn’t overwhelm him. And his game, under the direction of Coach John Groce and Assistant Jamall Walker, has seen a dynamic change, too.
“It’s a lot of that high school and prep school D.J.,” he says. “I had to get back to that guy I was then.”
‘That guy’ was a consensus top player in the country in the 2009 class. ‘That guy’ led the Mid-State 6 conference in scoring as a junior at Central High (Peoria) and helped Findlay (Nev.) Prep to a 33-0 record and national title the following season. He was a complete scorer, a great outside shooter who could also get to the rim off the dribble.
“Getting to the basket and scoring in a variety of ways,” he remembers.
When he got to Illinois in 2009, ‘that guy’ slowly disappeared. That doesn’t mean Richardson became a bad player -- far from it. He started 96 games in his first three years in Champaign, averaging 30 minutes and over 10 points per contest. He was consistent and did what was asked. That meant playing his role, mostly comprised of spotting up for 3-point shots. In fact, nearly 60 percent of his attempts were 3s, lending evidence to the fact that ‘that guy’ wasn’t around anymore. Right or wrong, better or worse, Richardson became a different player.
“To tell you the truth, it was all my fault,” he said. “I had settled in my role freshman year and became a one-dimensional player. I tried to change, but I had to stick with my role and the offense was kind of different the last three years with Coach (Bruce) Weber.”
There’s no ill-will towards his former coach. Weber ran his offense and used his players the way he saw fit. That’s the way Richardson sees it, but he doesn’t hide the fact that Groce’s arrival excited him. Early on, Groce and Walker had a few words to help spurn improvement from Richardson. Actually, it was one word, repeated over and over again.
“Attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, attack,” Richardson says of the message.
Groce’s assessment was simple, saying “D.J. can catch and shoot with the best of them in the country.”
It never hurts to have a player that’s hit 37 percent of 524 attempted 3s. But that wasn’t enough. In his first season, Groce needed ball handlers, players who could use ball screens, make reads and score in a variety of ways.
What he needed was ‘that guy.’
“In the spring time we got after it,” Richardson said. “I want to say two-thirds of my workouts had to do with ball handling, creating off the dribble and pull-up shots.”
Walker worked with him one-on-one, slamming him with pads as he dribbled by.
“They put me in situations where I was uncomfortable with the ball and made me gain confidence in those situations,” Richardson said. “Coach Walker has just been after me and now I’ve been doing so good with handling the ball that it’s easier for me to read. Going from workouts to practices and games, the workouts have helped me read the other players and read the defenders.”
So far, the hard work and revamped mindset has paid off. He led the team last week in scoring in both the Orange & Blue scrimmage and the exhibition against Lewis. He attempted 13 free throws in those two performances, and out of his 11 shots against Lewis four were 3s. That’s a good mix for a player that will always have the green light to shoot from deep, but is now expected to do more than that.
“That’s just the old D.J.,” he said “It’s being aggressive, getting to the basket and getting to the line. That’s who we need to help win and it will also take some pressure off other guys.”
Progress is important. Sure, the results are encouraging thus far, but it's early yet and the competition hasn’t been anywhere close to what’s to be encountered in the stacked Big Ten. To get ready, Groce wants to see more.
“OK, what are you doing on the defensive end to help us? … What are you doing to help the other guys? D.J.’s a guy that’s picked up stuff very quickly. You know, OK, now that you’ve got it down are you helping some of the other guys out? I think those are some of the things that we’ve been emphasizing.”
Given the improvements to his on-court mindset and game, Richardson is playing with more confidence. And why shouldn't he be? His successful leap from Peoria to Nevada taught him big changes can bring forth great things.
“That turned out to be something great that happened,” he said. “I went to prep school and went 33-0. Hopefully something great like that can happen here in my senior year. Just a big change like that can make that happen as well.”