Barry Jackson

A path emerges for Heat to become even better; Heat nuggets

A six-pack of Tuesday Heat notes:

• Of all the things that could potentially elevate this team from pretty good to something more, here’s one that should be high on your list: Josh Richardson’s evolution.

If Richardson becomes a top-15 caliber NBA starting small forward (and this is a deep and talented NBA position), it would help appreciably.

The early signs are encouraging, albeit in a small sample size.

Richardson is averaging 14.3 points and shooting 47.1 percent from the field. For perspective, only seven NBA small forwards did that last season and five are stars: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Gordon Hayward. The other two: T.J. Warren and Tobias Harris.

He’s averaging 1.3 blocks and has spoken of leading the NBA in blocks by a wing player. Last season, only Antetokounmpo and Durant averaged more than 1.3 blocks per game among all small forwards.

Richardson told me one big difference this year is the confidence he feels from finally being healthy after assorted injuries last year, including knee and ankle issues. “Now I feel bouncy,” he said.

Unlike injured Rodney McGruder - who Richardson replaced in the starting lineup - Richardson said starting means absolutely nothing to him.

“I don't care,” he said. “That's how we are around here. It's cool to start but if I come off the bench, I'm still going to play 25, 30 minutes a game.”

Did he ever envision starting in the NBA at small forward, as opposed to shooting guard? “I didn't envision any position,” he said. “Just wanted to be here and make an impact.”

As a starter, “I’ve got to warm up better. I can’t come out flat.”

There was the ultimate praise from Erik Spoelstra after Monday’s win against Atlanta.

“What didn’t J-Rich do tonight,” Spoelstra said. “He was great defensively. Those are the type of plays at the rim we had a former two-guard here make, those kind of blocks. There’s just not many twos in the league that can make those kind of plays and then guard one through four. But stretch the floor for us, space the floor for us and then when needed in the fourth quarter he was very aggressive, being able to attack when their defense stepped up.”

If this evolution continues, then the Heat will have shown great foresight by signing Richardson to a four-year, $42 million contract instead of allowing him to hit restricted free agency next summer.

• Jordan Mickey has a completely different skill set than Luke Babbitt, but he has emerged as something similar in this regard: a placeholder frontcourt starter who plays limited minutes.

Mickey played 14 minutes on Saturday against Indiana (8 points, 6 rebounds) and 15 on Monday against Atlanta (2 points, 6 rebounds).

This past offseason, an Eastern Conference general manager shared with me this assessment of Mickey, who will go back to the bench when Hassan Whiteside is healthy: “End of the bench NBA player than can play for 8-10 years in the right system as a shotblocker, rebounder, energy guy.”

• By the way, that GM said this about Miami signing Olynyk to a four-year, $46 million deal with a $12.2 player option in the final year: “Not a huge fan of Olynyk and think they overpaid by about 20 percent. I have no idea why he got a player option. But basketball wise he’s a good fit.”

• Among individual Heat player issues that directly correlate to winning, here’s one: The Heat is now 14-2 when Dion Waiters makes at least half his shots in a game. His efficiency is directly tied to Miami playing well.

• Keeping rookie guard Matt Williams Jr. in Miami and dispatching center AJ Hammons to the Heat’s G-League team in South Dakota helps balance a roster which was tilted too heavily toward bigs with McGruder injured.

Miami loves Williams’ shooting touch and quick release. That’s one reason they opted for him over a lot of prominent unsigned guards, including Monta Ellis, Derron Williams, Rodney Stuckey, Anthony Morrow, Matt Barnes, Gerald Green, Mike Dunleavy, Leandro Barbosa, Alan Anderson, Brandon Rush, C.J. Watson, Randy Foye, Gary Neal and Kirk Hinrich.

Unless the Heat cuts or trades a player to create an open roster, Williams Jr. can spend no more than 45 days in the NBA this season as part of his two-way contract.

• Per Elias, Wayne Ellington - in making six three-pointers in the second quarter - did something only four NBA players did last season (at least six threes in a quarter): Kevin Love (8), Troy Daniels (6), Isaiah Thomas (6) and Stephen Curry (6).

• ESPN is giving the Heat-Spurs game top treatment on Wednesday, with lead team Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy assigned to the game. Fox Sports Sun also will carry the game.