Ailene Voisin

Kings rookie Malachi Richardson, and his hair, were groomed for NBA

NBA summer league a learning experience for Kings' Malachi Richardson

Kings rookie shooting guard Malachi Richardson shares what he's experienced during the NBA summer league on Wednesday, July 13, 2016, after a game in Las Vegas. The former Syracuse standout showed flashes or what Kings fans would like to see this
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Kings rookie shooting guard Malachi Richardson shares what he's experienced during the NBA summer league on Wednesday, July 13, 2016, after a game in Las Vegas. The former Syracuse standout showed flashes or what Kings fans would like to see this

In a lounge on the 23rd floor of a Strip hotel that bans smoking and promises a Zen-like experience, one that introduces NBA rookies to the charmed life that for many will become the norm, Kings rookie Malachi Richardson eases onto a couch and spreads his arms.

So about those arms. They are long and lean, and when fully extended stretch to a 7-foot wingspan.

About those legs. They are slender but strong, accounting for much of his 6-6, 205-pound frame.

About those hands. They are large enough to cup a basketball easily, though according to their owner, the right hand offers a snugger fit.

And then that hair, those tight, perfect curls. Women spend a fortune and hours in beauty shops replicating those natural spirals that reach 5 to 6 inches and grow with the times. “I can pull them down to the bottom of my chin,” Richardson said, smiling, while demonstrating with a single strand.

Some of the more entertaining moments in the annual summer league occurred when Richardson – and his hair – was matched against the New Orleans Pelicans’ Buddy Hield – and his hair – in a duel between what the first-round pick referred to as “crazy Mohawks.”

The hair, of course, has nothing to do with the Kings’ decision to trade veteran Marco Belinelli to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights to the former Syracuse standout. It was the arms, the hands, the length, the skills, the intelligence, along with a nudge from All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who about a month before the draft coincidentally began working out with the shooting guard at the same training facility in Las Vegas.

“We had seen Malachi in college and were hoping he was available at No. 22,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said before Friday’s summer league finale. “DeMarcus told us to keep watching this kid, telling us he could play, and of course we did.”

We had seen Malachi in college and were hoping he was available at No.

Kings general manager Vlade Divac, on Malachi Richardson

But it’s also fair to say that Richardson, who significantly improved his draft status with a strong NCAA Tournament and excellent predraft workouts attended by the Kings and several other teams, was groomed for this moment since birth. Or perhaps before birth.

His parents, Jacquie and Lewis, took a liking to each other while playing in a pickup basketball game in Trenton, N.J. Sure enough, they started dating, married, had three children and, particularly in the case of Jacquie, made sure their youngest son gained an early appreciation of their favorite sport. No joke. At a very early age, Malachi became more familiar with Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant than Dora the Explorer.

“I remember watching basketball on TV when I was like 4 or 5 years old,” Richardson said. “My whole family was pretty much into basketball. But I only watched the Lakers and the Sixers.”

In a relaxed and engaging exchange Thursday afternoon, Richardson detailed how Jacquie began drilling him on the fundamentals before his hands were large enough to grasp a regulation basketball. Rather than have her son heave basketballs like other 6- and 7-year-olds, she gave Malachi a tennis ball and taught him the mechanics of shooting, of positioning the ball, flicking the wrists on the release and following through.

Almost nightly, Malachi said, he stood at the foot of his mother’s bed and shot tennis balls she would catch, or on other occasions, she clasped her hands and formed a circle, urging him to strike the middle of the imaginary rim.

As he grew older and taller, his parents carefully selected his coaches, his AAU programs and his high schools, with an emphasis on education and basketball. An honor student, Richardson attended Trenton Catholic Academy as a freshman, but at his parents’ urging, he transferred to the ultra-competitive Roselle Catholic High School for his sophomore season.

Asked whether he felt pressured to please, he replied, candidly, “Probably.”

Living with his father, about an hour from other family and friends, Malachi said he became homesick and unhappy, and he returned to Trenton Catholic for his junior and senior years.

By comparison, his choice of college was emotionally painless. Though he considered Arizona, Villanova, Indiana and Seton Hall, he had long had an affinity for Syracuse. “Carmelo Anthony, Jonny Flynn, Dion Waiters,” Richardson explains. “Definitely Syracuse.”

But for how long? While fellow Kings rookie Skal Labissiere rocketed to the top of the 2016 mock drafts with his dominating performance at the 2015 Nike Hoops Summit, only to plummet during his disappointing freshman year at Kentucky, Richardson’s experience was the opposite. He anticipated playing two or three college seasons to polish his skills and prepare his body for the NBA grind, and during an uneven freshman year, he appeared very much the visionary.

The Orange was similarly erratic, losing five of its final six regular-season games, and barely qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

But then came that one shining moment, or more specifically that one spectacular half. After going 0 for 5 against Virginia in the first half of their Elite Eight matchup, Richardson erupted for 21 points, displaying his full offensive repertoire. A fluid, graceful athlete, he hit deep jumpers, attacked for layups and converted free throws as he rallied Syracuse from a 14-point deficit to a highly improbable Final Four berth.

“Pressure never bothers Malachi,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Thursday. “Some of the close games we won at the end (were) because he made the big shots. You’ll love him. He is a smart kid, and he’s got all the tools. The Kings aren’t taking a shooting guard who is 6-3 or 6-4. He is a legitimate 6-6, and he can jump, and he has big hands and a strong body and a good feel for the game. He also comes from a wonderful family that gives him lots of support and is a terrific influence on him. But the question of course is this: How long does it take to adjust to the NBA game? You never know.”

Boeheim has his own experiences with the treachery of the NBA draft. For every Carmelo Anthony, there are dozens of Jonny Flynns. The former Syracuse point guard, who was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves No. 6 overall in 2009, is out of the league.

Though Boeheim endorses his players’ decision to turn pro if projected in the top 20, the small sample sizes and increasing unpredictability of the annual selection process, coupled with the huge jump in salaries because of the new television contracts, keep messing with the numbers.

Pressure never bothers Malachi. Some of the close games we won at the end was because he made the big shots. You’ll love him. He is a smart kid and he’s got all the tools.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, on Malachi Richardson

Most of the respected mock drafts, for instance, projected Richardson going from the No. 13 pick to the second round.

“Obviously he’s got a lot to learn,” Boeheim said. “He was much better this year at getting to the basket, and while he didn’t have a good field-goal percentage (inside the arc), his mid-range game improved as he went along. But he is working on his handle, he works very hard in general, and fundamentally has a chance to be a very good player.”

Richardson’s five-game summer league experience was typical of most rookies: inconsistent. He had moments when the jumper fell, he fooled defenders with crossover moves that led to layups, his passes found teammates for layups, and he used his physique to impede an opponent’s movement. His best game was a 20-point, seven-rebound effort against the Houston Rockets. But he occasionally was careless with the ball, throwing passes into the crowd and forcing shots, and struggled at the foul line.

“He’s got to really learn, defensively, about keeping his guy in front of him,” Kings assistant coach Bryan Gates said. “Weak-side defense is going to be a big thing with him. And he’s got to be quicker with his decisions. But I like him. I think we got a good one there.”

So what else does Richardson reveal before packing and moving to California? With a wide, eager grin, he said his passing is underrated, he loves to travel and is eager to explore Sacramento, has no trouble moving 3,000 miles from home, likes New Jersey but welcomes the change and was never a fan of “The Sopranos.” But he agrees with the opinion here that the brushed-back spirals enhance his sense of style, even in the NBA.

“I just believe that I’m ready for this,” he said. “It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life.”

Divac discusses his team's 0-5 Summer League effort and addition of reserve guard Garrett Temple.

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