A rising star with his hometown university, Yellowjacket freshman Zharon Richmond is already starting to turn heads playing in his own backyard. (Photo courtesy MSU Billings)

(MSU Billings release)

BILLINGS – Zharon Richmond is able to summon the memory of his first-ever dunk without an instant of hesitation.

“It was in warmups for a game sophomore year in the Butte High School gym,” Richmond said. “I had been getting close, but I didn’t know I’d get one down that day. It is a monumental moment every kid goes for, and everything went up from there.”

Things quite literally have gone up for the 6-foot-5 freshman on the Montana State University Billings men’s basketball team, who is 10 games into his career with his hometown university. He stood at 6-foot-1 at the time of his first dunk, and four inches and three years later the Skyview High School graduate has grown into a starter in the Yellowjackets’ lineup.

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Through 10 games Richmond ranks fifth on the team with an average of 9.1 points, and he’s third on the squad with 4.9 rebounds. Defensively, he has imposed his long presence on opponents with a team-high 17 blocks. Richmond has had five games with multiple blocks, including two different games with four blocks.

Three of those blocks came in a single defensive possession during last week’s 85-74 win over the University of Providence, when Richmond brought the crowd to its feet with three straight denials on Argo layup attempts.

“Zharon is the most college-ready true freshman we have had in the program,” said MSUB head coach Jamie Stevens. “He can play multiple positions, can affect the game on both ends of the court, and plays relentlessly. He has no fear around the rim, whether he is finishing with a dunk or contesting a shot on the defensive end.”

Last Friday’s big defensive effort – which came late in the second half – was not the first time the ‘Jackets relied on a boost from the freshman in a narrow victory. In a Nov. 16 home game against the University of Mary, MSUB found itself down 70-69 with just over two minutes remaining. The next minute of action belonged to the hometown kid, as he drained a corner three to give MSUB the lead and smashed down an ensuing dunk for a four-point cushion with a minute remaining.

“We needed to step up in that game, and when the ball fell into my hands I knew I could be the one to do it,” Richmond commented on his late heroics against the Marauders. “I had shot some (threes) before that, but that was the first one I hit in college. I just want to make sure this team comes together and is as successful as it can be this year.”

The ‘Jackets won 75-73, and enter Thursday’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference game against Central Washington University with an overall record of 7-3 on the season. Tipoff against the Wildcats is at 7 p.m. at Alterowitz Gym, where Richmond is expected to make his third straight start.

The friendly confines of MSUB’s home facility are not unfamiliar to Richmond, who was born in Oklahoma but moved to Billings at the age of three. He was a frequent visitor to the annual Yellowjacket youth basketball camps, with t-shirts that he has long since outgrown still tucked away among his childhood memories.

The game of basketball came naturally to Richmond, who favored the sport since he began to play competitively in the fourth grade. His mother Jaime Bieho was a collegiate basketball player at North Idaho College, while his father Alonzo Richmond competed at Phillips University (Okla.) and in several countries professionally. “As I got older I started to realize how hard it is to play college sports, and how fortunate I was to have two parents who played basketball in college,” Richmond said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

Richmond hadn’t yet grazed the 6-foot barrier when he entered the Falcons’ basketball program as a freshman, and it wasn’t until his junior year that his potential to compete beyond the prep level began to emerge. Under head coach and former Yellowjacket Kevin Morales, Richmond helped pace Skyview to the state title in the spring of 2016. After becoming a full-time varsity starter last year, it quickly became apparent that Richmond projected into a top collegiate prospect at the Division II level.

“It is great to have a local student-athlete in the program, and what makes it better is that Zharon is thriving at this level,” said Stevens. “As he goes through this GNAC season, he is going to realize how good the level of play is in this league.”

That high level of play hasn’t deterred Richmond’s spirits one bit, as he came alive for five points, five rebounds, and four blocks in his first ever conference game at Alaska Anchorage on Nov. 30. Since then, he’s scored in double figures in each of his last three games and averaged six rebounds and just over two blocks in last week’s matchups against three Montana opponents. “It is cool getting to play for MSUB knowing that I am from Billings,” Richmond said. “It gives me a sense of pride for the city of Billings to be competing for a school here.”

Richmond’s hometown pride has translated into the work he has done in his local community away from the court, as he learned the importance of his presence on the team before he played his first official game. On Halloween, the Yellowjackets welcomed Elijah Salley onto their roster through the Team IMPACT program, providing a second home for the 6-year-old who is battling cancer.

“It’s cool that he is officially signing and becoming part of our family, and being down here for him is a big thing that we can do,” Richmond commented during an interview after Elijah’s signing ceremony.

Since then, Elijah has often times been in line with his teammates on the bench to offer Richmond a high-five after a big block or dunk.

As his career unfolds, Richmond has a rich desire to help elevate his hometown team’s program towards the top of the conference. He recognized seniors Kendall Denham and Kamal Tall as key influences in his growth thus far, and a day doesn’t pass that he and roommate Tyler Green don’t analyze their most recent game or practice in their room between school and team commitments.

Last week, Richmond watched as junior teammate Sven Jeuschede filled up the bucket with a 68-point performance in three games that ultimately resulted in GNAC Player of the Week honors. “I look up to Sven a lot because he works so hard,” Richmond said. “He knows every play from every position on the court.”

Longer games and more physical play have been the two biggest areas of adjustment in Richmond’s mind, but he sees himself as a scoring threat in the future as he becomes more comfortable in his new No. 12 uniform. “Right now I’m just trying to do whatever the coaches ask, but I potentially see myself as a scorer,” said Richmond. “Whether it is to get in there and rebound, make hustle plays, or be a physical presence, I am just trying to learn how I can be effective.”

From his coach’s perspective, Richmond possesses a raw and uncommon skillset that makes it impossible to predict just how far he will go. “The sky is the limit for Zharon,” Stevens said. “Because he can play multiple spots, he will play a lot of minutes in his time here. It is hard to forecast, but his first semester as a college athlete definitely has us excited about his future.”