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Kings’ Richardson slows top rookie Simmons. Can he carve a niche with defense?

Malachi Richardson endures some ribbing from his teammates after his defensive effort against Ben Simmons

The Kings rallied from 16 down to beat the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday.
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The Kings rallied from 16 down to beat the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday.

Malachi Richardson was not known for his defense last season. But on Tuesday night, it had his team buzzing.

“Man since last year, (expletive) I know y’all seen me last year,” he said. “I was bad last year, kinda, but it got better once I really started getting in the rotation. This year I think I improved a lot.”

Richardson’s rookie season ended in February because of a hamstring injury, just as he was starting to see playing time. This season, playing time has been sparse, but his defense kept him on the floor nearly the entire second half Tuesday in the Kings’ 101-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center.

Richardson played 19 minutes in the second half, tasked with slowing Ben Simmons, a favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year. He made the most of a rare opportunity, as it was only his second appearance in the last nine games and 14th overall this season.

Coach Dave Joerger – juggling a lineup that was without guards George Hill (illness) and De’Aaron Fox (right thigh bruise) in the second half – turned to Richardson, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, to avoid getting overpowered with size on the wing.

Simmons (6-10, 230) was held to four points on 2-of-3 shooting and three assists in 19 minutes in the second half. He finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.

“I thought Malachi Richardson was super,” Joerger said. “… That was a happy, happy locker room for Malachi Richardson. He played very well, he bodied (Simmons), used his size. He’s a strong, strong guy and just tried to stay between him and the basket. I thought Malachi very quietly had a terrific game.”

Richardson was taken 22nd overall in the 2016 draft because of his potential as a 3-point shooter. He dedicated himself to getting stronger in the offseason, knowing his chance to play might be against bigger perimeter players.

That’s how he stayed on the court even though he scored only three points.

“Well today really showed I got a lot stronger than what I was last year,” Richardson said. “I spent a lot of time in the weight room, just rehabbing and trying to get my body right for this year. I just wanted to come in, compete and do the little things.”

He did those things, and helped the Kings (10-20) hold the Sixers (14-16) to 17 points in the fourth quarter.

Since Richardson was injured in February, the Kings have added Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Hill to the roster, all players who get minutes at shooting guard.

“Malachi’s been doing his work,” Joerger said. “We just have a glut of twos, so he’s been a little bit behind. But my intent, hopefully is to be playing him a little bit more going forward.”

Richardson said he wasn’t focused on who he was defending at any time, rather competing as best he could. His teammates were impressed, too. They teased him as he spoke to the media, something he hasn’t had to do much as he’s been waiting for a chance to play.

“That’s just a testament to staying ready,” said guard Garrett Temple. “I’ve been in his shoes before, so I always continue to tell him ... as long as you’re dressed out, you’ve got a jersey on, you’ve got a chance to play. That’s a credit to him being ready.”

Richardson has not complained about his playing time, always saying he was waiting for his opportunity that would come this season. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Man, it’s difficult, very difficult,” Richardson said. “But it’s part of the process, part of the business. You’ve got to be ready when your opportunity is called. You’ve to stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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