ISEE BIG things. I see alley-oops and thunder jams. I see blocks that swoop like the hand of God. I see liftoff from the foul line, astronaut hang time, two-fisted dunks that leave the rim in need of medical attention. I see tip-ins, put-backs, “gimme-that-ball” rebounds, so high he could spray paint his name on the backboard.
I see a future of big nights, big numbers.
I see Jason Richardson.
And he is sitting on the bench.
The bench? Yes. The bench. Oh, Richardson may be a sub right now, but he’s the real deal, folks. If you know anything about basketball you can see that the moment he enters the game, even if he makes one mistake after another. Certain talents, like certain brush strokes, belong to the artists. It’s just a matter of finding the right canvas.
Richardson, a 19-year-old, 6-foot-6 freshman, has the right body, the right leaping ability, the right quickness. He has the brush strokes. The tantalizing question for Michigan State fans is: Could this NCAA tournament be his canvas?
“He is scary good,” admitted coach Tom Izzo, in preparing for today’s second-round game against Utah. In the Round 1 victory over Valparaiso, Richardson had a career high in minutes played (25). He scored nine points and grabbed 10 rebounds, both nearly twice his average. He also had the night’s defining moment — a thunderous dunk off a Mateen Cleaves alley-oop that seemed headed for the rafters.
“Jason is such a live wire,” Izzo said. “Even if he’s not making the shot or the block, he’s near the ball.”
Precisely. Which is what makes him a potential tournament firecracker. The things he does — swooping in for rebounds, making spectacular dunks, slithering constantly into position — tip big games during March Madness.
Do the names Toby Bailey, Mike Bibby, Grant Hill and Michael Jordan ring a bell? Not only did they all win college championships, they all did it their freshman year. And they all showed a certain breezy indifference to the pressure of it all, which is what allowed them to fly when other players froze.
I see Richardson.
I see the same potential.
From Saginaw to East Lansing
Here is an episode from Richardson’s past: When he was 14, he made his first dunk on a playground court. He got so excited he ran to his grandmother’s house, told his uncle, bet him $10 he could do it again — right now! — and they ran down to the court and he did.
“Weren’t you afraid it was a one-time thing?” I ask.
“Nah,” he says. “Once I did it, I knew I could repeat it.”
That tells me something. It tells me once a weapon is in his arsenal, he owns it, like a trout in a fly fisherman’s pouch. So the more nights he has like Thursday, the more nights he’ll have that exceed it.
Pressure? Well, true, pressure is the enemy of most freshmen. Then again, Richardson has a high school history of coming up big in big moments. And even this first year of college, he had some of his best numbers against North Carolina, Arizona and Connecticut — as a sub.
Besides, this is a kid who felt special on a basketball court “when I was 6.” This is a kid from Saginaw Arthur Hill who was Mr. Basketball in Michigan, a kid who, when he jumps, doesn’t seem to push from below as much lift from above. This is a kid who stuns teammates in practice by catching every alley-oop pass Cleaves throws — no matter how ridiculous.
“I tell him, I’m a senior, you’re a freshman, if you miss it, it’s your fault,” Cleaves laughs.
He doesn’t miss many.
His bubble won’t burst
And, as Frank Sinatra once sang, here is the best part: Richardson, like many young players, points the finger at himself. But with him, it’s not for boasting, it’s for blame.
“I came here to improve,” he says. He stunned Izzo earlier this season by coming into the coach’s office and launching into a speech about all his weaknesses on the court.
“A lot of young guys, you tell them stuff, they don’t listen,” said Cleaves, who has become a mentor to Richardson. “With Jason, he looks you right in the eye. You know he wants to learn.”
For now, he is, to coin a phrase, gingerly gonzo, tempering his explosions with careful dribbling, passing off, playing defense, not trying to do too much.
“How much of your potential are we seeing?” he is asked.
“About 70 percent, I think,” he says, without flinching. “I hold back a bit, because I’m here right now as a role player.”
Well. If he’s got 30 percent more height in his leap, they need to raise the roof.
For now, other teams might be grateful that Richardson plays limited minutes behind older players he admires. But his moment is coming. A tip, a rebound, a block, a jam, an unpredictable move that turns the tide of a big game. I see those moves. I see them inside this freshman, who, during a game, chomps on at least seven sticks of gum.
“Bubblicious,” he says, “strawberry and grape.”
You know what else I see?
I see the people at Bubblicious smiling, that’s what I see.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).