Kyle Korver remembers the first time he met Wesley Matthews. It was the first day of training camp during the 2009-10 season and the two players were teammates on the Utah Jazz. Korver was a six-year NBA veteran, while Matthews was an undrafted rookie who had received a training camp invite after playing well during the Orlando Summer League. Unlike most rookies, Matthews was NBA-ready since he had spent four years at Marquette and was 23 years old entering the league. While many of the veterans had no idea who Matthews was at the start of the camp, he made a strong first impression with his solid play.
“When we first came in [to Utah], he wasn’t drafted – I think they kind of brought him in for training camp and everyone just kind of thought, ‘Man, Wes is a good player,’” Korver recalled. “He worked hard, he was really strong, he was trying to be a better shooter, he asked a lot of questions about defense and just fundamentals of the game, and you really liked him as a guy. He’s just a really good dude, you know? Then, he just kept on getting better and better and better. He was just so solid; he didn’t make many mistakes.”
Matthews played so well that he was moved into the team’s starting lineup for 48 games after Utah traded away Ronnie Brewer. He averaged 11 points on 48.7 percent shooting from the field as well as 2.6 rebounds and a steal as a starter, and became a huge contributor for a Jazz team that advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Because Matthews wasn’t drafted, he was only signed to a one-year deal with the Jazz and became a restricted free agent after his rookie season. That summer, he received a five-year, $34 million offer sheet from the Portland Trail Blazers. He signed it, Utah decided not to match, and the rest is history.
Matthews has improved each year since inking that contract and is now a key contributor for the contending Blazers. While he continues to be a pest on defense and provide energy, he has also turned his weaknesses into strengths – particularly his shooting. During his rookie season, he shot just 165 three-pointers all year and hit 38.2 percent from long range. In every season since, he has doubled or tripled his number of attempts and shot a better percentage. This season, he is tied with Korver and Stephen Curry for most three-pointers made (161) and the three will face off in the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest tonight. Matthews’ success has really impressed Korver, who admits he never thought that his slashing, defensive-minded rookie teammate would someday be an elite shooter.
“Wes has worked so hard and I’m so happy for him with the career he’s made for himself,” Korver said. “Just to see where he is now and obviously the shooter that he is, [it’s incredible].
“Who would have thought that Wesley Matthews would be leading the NBA in three pointers made? You would have never had thought that back in that training camp, however many years ago that was. I think Wes has a great work ethic and he believes in himself, and those two things have gotten him really far.”
Matthews says that his improvement as a three-point shooter actually started back in Utah during that rookie campaign. As great as he was at providing energy and perimeter defense, he was being taken off of the court because he couldn’t contribute on the offensive end. He decided he wanted to change that, and started working with then-Jazz assistant coach Jeff Hornacek on improving his jump shot.
“When I was in Utah, Coach [Jerry] Sloan was putting me in the game for energy and defense, but on the offensive end I was actually a liability,” Matthews said. “Teams wouldn’t guard me because they didn’t really know a lot about me, so my man was able to help off and guard Deron Williams or Carlos Boozer and that’s when C.J. Miles would come in because teams would have to respect his shooting. I’m not really a guy who likes coming off the court so I made sure I would get with Jeff Hornacek and become a two-way player so when teams left me open, I would make them pay and knock that shot down. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and you got to put in the work.”
Back then, when he was just trying to become good enough to stay on the floor, Matthews never imagined he would eventually develop into one of the NBA’s top sharpshooters and compete in the three-point contest.
“Only God can write a story like this, so I’m just trying not to mess it up,” Matthews said. “For me to be here, it’s humbling and I’m grateful. It’s the second time for me being at an All-Star Weekend – [not bad] for a guy who wasn’t drafted. Our careers are short enough, so I’m just trying to live everything out and reflect on all that when it is all said and done. I’m definitely enjoying this now.
“I’m just thankful to even be eating breakfast with some of these guys. I used to watch J.J. Redick in college, Steph [Curry] is obviously a great shooter and so is Klay [Thompson]. So just to be in the same breath as these guys is a tremendous honor.”
Despite the fact that Matthews is tied for the lead in three-pointers made this season, he’s a huge underdog in the three-point contest. Curry and Korver (who have the same number of threes as Matthews) are the favorites while Matthews enters the contest with the worst odds, which he finds amusing.
“Oh, I love it,” Matthews said. “I mean, I had the worst odds of even being here, sitting here talking with all you guys right now since I wasn’t drafted and I wasn’t highly touted. It’s only fitting that I have the lowest odds.
“I already play with a chip on my shoulder because of how I was raised, but it’s almost starting to become expected. I would have been shocked if I wasn’t the least favorite to win.”
Matthews may be overlooked in the three-point contest, but he’s extremely respected around the league. This season, he’s having the best season of his NBA career, averaging 16.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals. He’s also posting the highest efficiency rating of his career (16.04), and he’s ranked 11th in the NBA in Effective Field Goal Percentage (57.1 percent) and 16th in the NBA in Value Over Replacement Player (2.6).
Because he’s playing so well, he’ll be highly coveted this summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. With the All-Star festivities being in New York, Matthews was asked what he thought of the city and if he’d have any interest in joining the Knicks this offseason.
“I mean, you can get whatever you need here,” Matthews said of New York. “It is definitely busy here and it’s just different compared to what I’m used to. I’m from the Midwest, so I’m used to grass and driving through open areas. But it has grown on me over the years.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t even really thought about being a free agent, man,” Matthews added. “I’m extremely happy in Portland and we have a great thing going there and that is where my mind is.”
When asked a follow-up question about Phil Jackson and how he’ll help the Knicks’ recruiting pitch, Matthews showed the Zen Master respect but once again stressed that he’s happy with the Blazers.
“Phil has been around basketball for a long time; he is one of the greatest basketball minds ever,” Matthews said. “But I’m not really thinking about New York right now. I’m not in their locker room or in any part of that, so all I’m really thinking about now is being in Portland and continuing the great things we have going over there.”
Portland is currently 36-17, which is the third-best record in the competitive Western Conference. Matthews believes that the team has what it takes to contend, and that the group learned a lot from last year’s embarrassing 4-1 defeat to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“Any time you get whipped like we did in the second round [last year], you grow and understand what it takes to be a champ,” Matthews said. “We had a tremendous series against Houston and it was probably one of the best in recent years, but we saw what it was like to play against champions. One game it was Tony Parker, then Danny Green, then Manu [Ginobili], then [Tim] Duncan and then Patty [Mills]. They came in waves and it came from everyone.”
Matthews feels like the Blazers are in a good position at the moment, but stressed that they need to stay healthy. If they can do that, Portland’s best basketball may still be ahead of them.
“Right now, we have an identical record to what we had last year, but last year we were a lot less injury prone,” Matthews said. “I think our bench and the rest of the players on this team have definitely stepped up and as we continue to get back guys that are healthy, we can continue to get better.”
As Matthews has proven throughout his six-year NBA career, he knows a thing or two about getting better.
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