Column: Jereme Richmond doesn’t deserve hatred

When the NBA Draft came and went Thursday night without Jereme Richmond hearing his name called, many Illini fans took to Twitter and other social media sites, mostly with a message of “I told ya so” for the young forward.

The feelings are understandable. Richmond was a promising young player, one who committed to Bruce Weber and the Illini after his very first high school game, went on to become Illinois’ Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American in his senior season and stayed true to his word by becoming an Illini last season.

Richmond’s first year in the Orange and Blue was certainly remarkable, but for all the wrong reasons. He showed flashes of the immense talent on the court, but the off-court issues that many worried about during his high school days crept up again. Richmond did not play against Wisconsin on Jan. 15 after missing practice during the week for what was called “personal reasons.”

Despite rumors of unhappiness and a possible transfer, Richmond returned to become a solid contributor for the Illini. For the season, he averaged 7.6 points and five rebounds per game while making the All-Big Ten Freshman Team and showing flashes of greatness that gave Illinois hope for the future.

However, the off-court drama crept up again at the most crucial time of the season: the NCAA Tournament. Rumors of a fight with Brandon Paul after the Illini were knocked out of the conference tourney by Michigan were only inflamed when Richmond was held out of the Illini’s two NCAA tourney games.

We still don’t have the whole story on what actually happened, and we may never know. But Illinois fans were still holding out hope that Richmond would mature both on and off the court into one of the best players in the country. That all changed soon after, though.

Once Richmond announced he was leaving school and declaring himself eligible for the NBA Draft, Illini fans were left dazed and confused. It was as if they had just experienced a bad breakup with their high school sweetheart. Wasn’t Richmond supposed to be the savior of the Illini basketball program? Wasn’t he supposed to help lead them out of their underachieving ways of recent years?

Whatever the reason for Richmond’s departure, the fact of the matter is he did not live up to expectations. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t helpful for Bruce Weber and Illinois basketball as a whole.

Despite not contributing much on the court, Richmond could still have had a positive effect on the Illini. Before he committed, recruiting in Chicago was considered the one thing Bruce Weber could not do, something that would forever hold him back from taking the program back to the glory days of 2005 and the Final Four.

After Richmond committed, it became cool for Chicago kids to go to Illinois again. Now the Illini are once again players in the Windy City, a hotbed of talent for college basketball programs around the country. Their ability to keep the best talent in the state has helped them consistently rank in the top 10 to 15 recruiting classes in the country the past few years.

Richmond’s saga could also serve as a cautionary tale to both fans and future players. I’m not saying his career is over and he is certain to fail, but perhaps future players will weigh more heavily the benefits of staying in school and continuing their education rather than risking entering the draft before they are ready.

As for the fans, they will get over the heartbreak caused by his departure. The Illini have a lot of young, talented players set to come to Champaign in the next few years, ones that will likely help fans of the Orange and Blue move on in time. But maybe they will also learn to temper expectations, rather than place so much pressure on such a young individual.

I know right now seeing Richmond fail is like seeing your ex working as a janitor at a fast food joint, but Illini fans should think before they tweet and post on message boards criticizing him. Yes, he made some bad decisions, but nobody is perfect. Instead, offer some support to a young man who has to reconsider what he once thought was a sure-fire successful career. In time, everything will work out, both for Richmond and the Illini.