In his first year at Illinois, he struggled with his teammates, his coaching staff and his role on the team, but still averaged 7.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. Rather than following Turner’s example though, he declared for the draft and wasn’t selected.
Now, after being charged with several felonies in an incident involving a handgun this week, the 19-year old Richmond might never get a chance to fulfill his potential. It’s a tragic story, leaving aside whatever did or did not happen that night, which none of us can know. From a strictly basketball perspective, the tragedy is how poorly Richmond’s talent was developed.
Despite his up-and-down freshman season, he has the potential to be a legitimate NBA player. A long and athletic 6’7 wing, he has excellent ball skills and court vision for someone his size. He can grab a rebound, start a fast break and either find the open man or finish himself.
In Illinois’ two biggest games of the year, against Big 10 champion Ohio State, Richmond gave a glimpse of his potential. Despite being matched up against two NBA-caliber wings in David Lighty and William Buford, he averaged 14.5 points on 73% shooting along with 9.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
But like many other highly-touted recruits, Richmond struggled to play without the ball. Without a consistent three-point shot, it was hard for him to affect the game when Illinois’ offense was going through seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale.
In high school and AAU ball, Richmond never had to play off the ball. He was almost always the biggest, tallest, fastest and most skilled player on the court. Despite getting kicked off his high school team in his sophomore year for numerous off-the-court incidents, he returned to lead his school to two berths in the state tournament.
Instead of improving as a player in his teenage years, Richmond’s career was harmed by his time in school. He learned his talent would always get him a second chance and that he could dominate a game merely by stepping on the court.
It’s hard to discipline a player who knows they don’t have to listen you, as Illinois coach Bruce Webber found out when he had to suspend Richmond two different times last year. Richmond is part of a youth basketball culture that turns its stars into vagabonds: 47% of the top 100 recruits in the classes of 2010 and 2011 attended more than one high school.
From the time they pass puberty, many are professionals in all but name: bouncing between different AAU and high school programs, all eager for the ancillary benefits of having a top recruit play for them. Because of their height advantage over most of their peers, they can dominate the average high school basketball player without improving while becoming walking lottery tickets many in their communities are trying to cash.
In contrast, promising European soccer and basketball players are developed by professional teams by the time they are 16. A European Jereme Richmond would have received a legitimate paycheck once he sprouted to 6’7, protecting him from unsavory characters like Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, who admitted to showering the Hurricanes’ football and basketball players with under-the-table money as well as illicit prostitute and drug-filled parties.
He would have trained against players just as big and fast as him, preventing him from developing some of the bad habits he displayed at Champaign and keeping his ego at least somewhat under control. Nor would his schoolwork necessarily be forgotten: FC Barcelona makes the young players at their famed “La Cantera” academy take classes.
Highly-touted players who underperformed in college and were drafted far below their talent level have become an annual occurrence. Two other elite players from Richmond’s high school class, Josh Selby and Jeremy Tyler, wound up in this year’s second round.
Richmond wasn’t the first player, and he won’t be the last, set up for failure by the current system. That doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for whatever happened on that Chicago street on Monday night, but even without his legal troubles, he faced an uphill climb to reaching his potential on the basketball court.
A player who could have been the next Evan Turner might never play high-level basketball again; no one -- not the players, the NCAA, the NBA or the fans -- wins in this scenario.