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The season has been far from a perfect one for the Syracuse University basketball team. Sitting at 11-7, including 1-4 in ACC play, the Orange still have plenty of tough sledding ahead and will be fighting to finish above .500 on the year, a mark they’ve never dipped below in Jim Boeheim’s entire tenure as head coach. Fortunately for Syracuse, freshman guard Malachi Richardson seems to be growing into his role at exactly the right time.

Now, Richardson obviously hasn’t been perfect, and still has a lot of work to do to become a consistent performer at both ends of the court. He’s still struggling from time to time on┬ádefense, so for now, I’m just going to focus on talking about his offensive game – particularly since that’s the area he was known for coming out of high school, and which will ultimately get him to the NBA.

Richardson came out hot to open the year, with a strong performance in the Bahamas that started opening some eyes. But there were some subtle things signaling he wasn’t quite clicking offensively despite solid shooting in those early games. Yes, he had at least three triples in three of the first five games of the year, but there were some signs early on that struggles were ahead, and they hit hard in December.

That was the month in which Malachi shot just 16% from three point range, after having knocked down 38.5% from long distance in November. Suddenly, Richardson was launching some bad shots, forcing the action, and living and dying from beyond the arc. Things got to their worst in the team’s embarrassing loss against St. John’s, when Richardson went just 4-of-20 from the field, including an historically bad performance from three point range, going 0-for-11.

It was after that game he decided to change his approach, and in the ensuing eight games, it’s helped him become a better all-around player and a more complete offensive threat.

In each of his first 10 games, Richardson attempted more three pointers than two point field goals – more than twice as many, actually. He launched 72 three pointers in those first 10 games, against just 35 two pointers. He was making himself easier to guard, limiting himself to being simply an outside threat. And when the shots weren’t falling – as they most certainly were not during the team’s disappointing December – he was basically a non-factor in games, and in reality often hurt the team with poor shot selection.

After vowing to change his offensive approach, the numbers certainly back that up. In the last eight games, he’s only taken more threes than two pointers a total of three times. Since the St. John’s game, he’s taken 44 two point field goals against 42 three pointers, dipping his three pointers attempted per game from 7.2 to 5.2, and while that’s still a lot of threes to take, it’s worked out beautifully from an individual standpoint. Obviously the wins haven’t come, but Richardson’s performances have – with a few bumps here and there – gotten steadily better.

He’s scored in double figures in seven of eight games over that stretch, with the lone exception being seven points in the easy win over Montana State, a game in which his offense wasn’t really needed. He’s topped 20 points twice, marking the first two times in his career he’s notched that mark. And his three point percentage has skyrocketed, sitting at 57.7% for the month of January so far.

Now, the flipside is that while his three point shooting has gone up and his two point attempts have surpassed his two point attempts, his two point field goal percentage has dipped way down. He’s only hitting 30% of his two pointers in January, but frankly, that’s beside the point. By driving to the hoop more, he’s making himself much more difficult to guard. One of the problems with his early season production dip was that defenders didn’t have to worry about him setting foot inside the arc, so they could just stick in his hip pocket without ever worrying about him trying to take them off the dribble.

Not anymore, though. His ability to drive was on full display last night in a win over Boston College, and he made the Eagles pay by hitting 3-of-4 two pointers while only attempting a trio of three pointers. He scored 15 points and handed out three assists in the win. By the way, his decision to start driving more and launching fewer threes has helped out his teammates, as well. Through four games in January, he’s got 11 assists. Compare that to December, when he had just 10 assists in eight games. By deciding to focus on becoming a more complete scorer, he’s also helped open up scoring chances for his teammates, and he’s been very good at driving and dishing.

Unless your name is Steve Kerr, you need to be able to add the ability to drive, or at least be a threat to drive, to keep defenses honest. When you show that you’re a threat to take it to the bucket, defenders are unable to stay up as tight on you on the perimeter, which in turn gives you more space to get a jumper off. The more space you have to get a shot off, the better the chances you’ll be able to take the shot in rhythm and with good form, rather than rushing through the motion just to make sure you get the shot away. And when you’re able to take better shots, you’re going to make more of them. Every. Single. Time.

That’s not to say that Richardson’s shots weren’t falling in December because he was tightly guarded every time. He had plenty of open looks that simply didn’t fall. That’s what happens to streak shooters – and make no mistake, right now Richardson is a streak shooter. But Richardson has recognized that the best way to get his offense going is to work from the inside out, and it’s paying off for him and, hopefully, it’ll soon help translate to some more wins for his team.

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