J.J. Richardson never knows whether he will play in a game, let alone when. So when he does get a rare opportunity to get off the Panthers' bench, Richardson plays like someone who is making up for lost time.
Richardson's opportunities might come more frequently after he played the finest game of his short career Wednesday night against West Virginia.
Richardson, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound freshman center, scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds in 14 minutes. In Pitt's first 21 games, Richardson had scored only two points with eight rebounds in sporadic minutes.
"He's a hard worker," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Thursday night after the Panthers concluded practice. "He's getting better. He's been practicing well. I thought he deserved the opportunity."
Richardson received his opportunity when freshman Dante Taylor, the backup to starter Gary McGhee, was pulled from the game after six minutes due to ineffective play.
Taylor, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound McDonald's All-American, has not scored in the past four games and has not played more than 10 minutes in any of those contests.
In 14 minutes against West Virginia, Richardson produced as many points as Taylor produced in the past seven games combined. Taylor has contributed nine points and 10 rebounds in the past seven games.
"Dante is working hard," Dixon said. "He's played well, too. It's just that J.J. has played well. It's not one versus the other."
Richardson, who played high school basketball in Texas after growing up in Troy, Ohio, played one minute in the previous six games before West Virginia. The only game in which he saw significant playing time was against Texas in November when he played 10 minutes and scored the first two points of his career.
"My name hasn't been called a lot, but I still go hard in practice and stay into the game," Richardson said. "I pay attention to the plays being called, so when my name is called, whether it be for 14 minutes or 30 seconds, I'm ready to go in."
Dixon said he had conversations with Richardson throughout the season about staying ready. The coach said it's always a concern when a player is not playing as much as he desires, but he indicated that Richardson handled a reduced role in the best manner possible.
"That's something we've talked to him about," Dixon said. "I thought we'd have more situations with foul trouble with our big guys. He's working hard and showing improvement. He has a better understanding on the defensive end. He's rebounding well. Those are the things that stood out to me. Guys get better at different rates and he's improving. Our players have seen him work hard and he deserved the opportunity."
Richardson is not a trained center. He played power forward in high school and expected to play power forward at Pitt. But shortly after he arrived on campus, he was told he would be playing center this season.
For Richardson, the transition has been difficult at times, but he is finally starting to feel comfortable. That was evident in his performance against the Mountaineers.
He likely earned more minutes with his inspired play, but he knows he must continue to produce to warrant more time in the rotation.
"I think I did prove something to [the coaches], but I think I have to prove more to them," he said. "I did have a good game, but I think I can show them more. I can come out and rebound better and do a few other things better. I think I can do more in that sense."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230. First Published February 5, 2010 5:00 AM