Big Ten guards, meet your defensive nightmare.
As part of SLAM’s breakdown of the 2009 recruiting classes, we will be featuring a couple of stories each week on some of the top incoming freshman from the major conferences to go along with the recruiting breakdowns featured on Wednesdays.
D.J. Richardson isn’t like most elite high school guards. Sure, he’s athletic, has some silky smooth moves in his pocket and can elevate and finish well at the rim, but that’s no different from any other top-50 player walking onto a college campus this fall. OK, so his year spent at powerhouse Findlay Prep will have him better prepared than some of his peers when he puts on an Illinois uniform for the first time in November, but some of the best recruits each year arrive from prep schools across the country. No, Richardson doesn’t start to separate himself from the crowd until you ask him where he thinks he can make the most impact for the Fighting Illini next season.
“Defense,” he says.
The word rolls off his tongue unexpectedly but in such a refreshing way that it leaves you stunned momentarily, like a no look pass that catches its intended receiver in the chest. Surely this blossoming combo guard with a nicely developing jump shot must be mistaken. In this age of me first high school players and the monstrosity that is the AAU system, which has become nothing more than a collection of glorified pickup games, surely Richardson can’t be focused on an aspect of the game that yields so little glory given the effort that is put in.
“I have a big chance right now to be a starting combo guard for the team. I think I have a big opportunity because I defend.”
Because I can defend; he said it twice so he must believe it. Watching Richardson play, it’s hard not to come away impressed with the defensive prowess of the Peoria, IL native. Findlay Prep head coach Mike Peck went so far as to say that at points during the year Richardson was the team’s top defender, heavy praise considering ball hawk Avery Bradley roamed the backcourt as well.
“D.J. is a tremendous on ball defender and as the year progressed he probably became out best help defender as well,” Peck says. “He really just wreaked havoc on guys at that end of the floor with his energy and effort.”
Richardson brought his defensive tenacity to Findlay this past season after deciding to leave Peoria Central High School in Illinois to better his game and his academics. He says he first learned of the upstart program when he heard that DeAndre Liggins, a star guard from nearby Chicago (and current Kentucky Wildcat) had transferred to the school and was excelling in his new Las Vegas setting. Richardson and his family put in a call to the school and were quickly given all the information they needed from the coaching staff for the switch to be made.
Upon arriving at his new school, Richardson was thrust into an environment with high expectations and highly competitive basketball. The Findlay Prep roster was loaded with future Division I talent at every position, making for an intense atmosphere, something Richardson says has given him more than enough preparation for the Big Ten.
“We competed every day in practice which is something I really didn’t have a lot of back at my old high school,” he says. “At Findlay I had guys like Avery Bradley and Corey Joseph to compete with at practice; we had a team of great players who all helped each other get better every day.”
Coach Mike Peck further echoed Richardson’s thoughts on the benefits of being surrounded by an abundance of talent.
“I think when you play at the level that we play at and you’re surrounded by the kind of players we saw all season, it really helped him get ready.”
Findlay certainly played at a high level of competition, competing across the country at events like the National Prep Showcase in November and the Montverde Academy Invitational in January. The Pilots season concluded in early April with an appearance in the ESPN National High School Invitational where they found themselves in a tournament field loaded with some of the top programs in the country. After man handling perennial power Montrose Christian in the tournament semi-finals, Findlay took down legendary Oak Hill Academy in the final to be crowned national champions. Richardson chipped in 11 points and played excellent perimeter defense in the final contest and said the win was a tribute to the effort put in by the team leading up the event.
“We found out about a week before we went out to Maryland that (then number one) Mater Dei had lost, so we knew going in that we had a shot to be the number one team in the country. We knew that going out to the east coast we would be the underdogs, so we worked extra hard in practice and did what we had to do when we got out there.”
Now, having already played on the national stage in front of a television audience, Richardson will head to the Big Ten where he will be walking into a backcourt that features exactly one guard who saw more than 12 minutes of action per game last season. Having been on the losing end of the switch decision that Eric Gordon made two years ago, Illini fans have been anxious for the arrival of an elite guard to the roster.
Richardson, who verbally committed to Illinois in October of 2007, stated he wanted to go to a program where he could make a significant impact on the floor. At the time of his decision to attend Illinois, the Illini were coming off a 23-12 season in which they had been knocked out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“They were losing and I really wanted to come in and help the program, I didn’t want to see it hurt anymore,” he says. “I wanted to go to a school that I knew I could come in and help right away.”
Losing may be a loosely applied term since the Illini were just two years removed from playing for a national championship, but certainly the team had taken a step back since their magical 2005 run. Richardson hopes he can play a major role in restoring his new team to the top of the national rankings much as he was able to do at Findlay Prep.
For now, the talented guard is on campus in Champaign and has just completed his first full week of summer classes. He’s been scrimmaging with his new teammates and working hard to improve his ball handling, something he says will come in handy against the smaller guards he anticipates being matched up against because “smaller guards are always sneaky.” As the anticipation for his emergence on the court continues to grow, there seems to be little doubt amongst his supporters that Richardson will be a player in the Big Ten from day one.
“Oh I know he’ll have an impact,” says Findlay coach Mike Peck. “I think he’s going to be a guy who can step in and contribute right away.”
Bruce Weber and the Illinois coaching staff hope that will be the case, and while Richardson takes the aw shucks approach by saying he’s just happy to be there, opposing Big Ten guards aren’t exactly warming up to the idea of operating under his defensive guise.