Welcome to The Craft, a serial look inside the world of player development in the NBA.
Wesley Matthews remembers. After six years, the sting of going undrafted remains fresh in his mind. So do the questions and criticism Matthews faced upon signing a lucrative contract with the Trail Blazers a year later – doubts that he has long since silenced with his play. When said in such volume, though, the accusation of being "overpaid" doesn't just leave you. It cuts deep with its insinuation of lesser worth, the scars of dubiety serving as a constant reminder.
Matthews remembers. For a long time those comments and sound bites took a prominent place in his professional life. Yet at 28 years old, Matthews has changed in the way that he processes those lived-in memories he once relied on for motivation.
"I've always had a chip on my shoulder with doubters and haters and all that," Matthews said. "But where I think I've grown is that you're never going to be able to prove a doubter or a hater wrong. Most of my drive now is trying to prove everybody that believed in me right."
This is the new Matthews: Ever defiant, though no longer driven so purely by spite. Matthews has reached a point in his career where those memories of public skepticism are but relics. There can be no doubting Matthews' basketball worth now – not as he hits as many three-pointers as any player in the league, commits fully to even the smallest of defensive tasks and in doing so expands Portland's range of possibilities. His play makes a world of difference for a legitimate championship contender.
To think it all began with a one-year, non-guaranteed contract for the NBA's absolute minimum salary. No team in the 2009 draft saw fit to select Matthews, a four-year guard from Marquette University, with any of that year's 60 picks. Matthews scrambled for a way in. He picked up with the Utah Jazz for the Orlando Summer League and the Sacramento Kings for a stint in Las Vegas. He showed enough to warrant a camp invite from the Jazz, who at that point were well-stocked on the wings with Andrei Kirilenko, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, and C.J. Miles. Upon invitation, Matthews looked to be a mere flier.
Preseason injuries to Korver and Miles, however, changed Utah's calculus to the point that Matthews found a way in. By the second game of the season Matthews had wormed his way into Utah's playing rotation. He never left.
"My mentality at that point was to just make the team," Matthews said. "Stay on the roster. Make sure I was still in the NBA. After I made the roster and I started playing in games, I wanted to just evolve. I've always done that. I've gotten better every single year that I've played basketball starting from grade school."
For Matthews, that meant shooting to exhaustion. Defense and hustle were Matthews' way in; his first NBA season was earned with ball pressure and floor burns. Once in the mix, though, Matthews found that Jazz coach Jerry Sloan would consistently turn to better shooters as the game progressed.
"I was a liability," Matthews said. "Teams were sagging off of me, were leaving me and it was kinda crowding space so I had to become a player that can make shots.
"I worked a lot with [then-Jazz assistant] Jeff Hornacek. It was a lot of reps. They didn't try to tweak anything with my shot, it was just a lot of repetition. We just had one of those guns. I don't even know the drills. He just turned it on and it was follow the leader. It was a lot of shots."
It offers some clarity that Matthews, an indefatigable worker, looks weary even recounting those days. The burden of proof for any undrafted rookie is incredibly high. Most aren't afforded the same room to explore and make mistakes that a lottery pick might be – even those who find playing time as quickly as Matthews. His solution was to shoot until his accuracy corrected. By spring, Matthews was hitting better than 40% of his roughly 2.5 three-point attempts per game. Sloan soon found – as Buzz Williams did at Marquette – that Matthews was slowly becoming indispensable.
"I never saw him have a bad day, never saw him not be prepared, never saw him not engaged in practice," Williams told The Columbian in 2011. "When Wesley was on the court, was he always the best player? Not necessarily. But could you find a way to take him off the floor? No.”
Such is as concise a thesis statement as you'll find of Matthews. He's earned his marksmanship, but to call him only a shooter would be a gross oversimplification. Matthews kills himself to control his defensive matchups. He cuts in a way that now makes the Blazers' improvisations look like designed plays. He'll do some ball handling in a pinch, scrap for any and every loose ball, and be among the first down the court in transition. Moreover: Matthews, particularly as he's aged into proficiency, just doesn't make all that many mistakes.
"I'm not going to put myself or my team in bad situations often," Matthews said.
Portland saw opportunity in these skills and front-loaded a $32.5 million offer sheet with an enormous signing bonus once Matthews hit restricted free agency. This was the same tactic the Blazers had used the summer prior in an attempt to lure away Paul Millsap, though Utah ultimately matched. Matthews, though, was given this way-above-market offer just after the Jazz had entered luxury tax territory for the first time in their franchise's history. Regrettable though it was to see him go, there seemed an understandable prudence in Utah's decision to pass on a contract match. Portland, which still employed Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez at the time, had its man if with some anxiety.
“People don’t know what they can expect from me yet,” said Matthews at the time, per The Columbian. “Last year was a surprise to everyone, but not to me. I come to work and I put in the time and put myself in this position. Now when I get a chance, I make the most of it.”
In five seasons with the Blazers, Matthews has done just that. Portland has been the site of Matthews' basketball synthesis. Already he was a basketball intuitive. Yet in continuing his training as a shooter, Matthews added further means through which to read and control the game. In doing so he has effectively become a shot creator off the ball – shifting at the perfect time as to create a passing lane where there had been none.
"I think he has a great sense of the game," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "I think he was well-coached in high school and in college. We run some plays for him, but he gets a lot of his action in the flow of the game. That's because he has a good understanding. He sees things before they happen."
Through this kind of adjustment, Matthews lengthens his defender's angle of recovery. It's natural for the defense to lean in on one of LaMarcus Aldridge's post-ups or Damian Lillard's drives. Matthews simply exploits that momentary inattention by moving away from where his defender expects him to be and giving himself a longer shooting window in the process.
According to Synergy Sports, Matthews posts an effective field goal percentage of 72.9% on unguarded jumpers in a half-court setting. This is a ridiculous figure in itself, especially when considering how Matthews' ability to read a play's progression helps to generate those opportunities in the first place. From there, his minimalist shooting form allows for quick release against closing defenders.
Shooting form in the NBA largely comes secondary to function. Matthews is, in some respects, a standing example to the contrary. He thrives from the arc as a direct result of the way he shoots – both for his form's immediacy and its low-variance execution.
"There's not much to my shot," Matthews said. "I don't jump. There aren't many places for it to go wrong. You've got guys who jump really high. For me, it's here (Matthews mimes bringing his shot up) and it's gone."
Sustenance in the NBA is all about technique. Players who work as hard as Matthews are endearing to coaches and teammates alike. But staying power doesn't come without hard, committed skill work. That endeavor started on the perimeter for Matthews, but as he grew stronger he found all the more reason to go inside. Matthews is primarily a floor spacer, a timely cutter, a needed outlet. But in those occasions where the ball works through him, he operates as a post-up bully with all sorts of moves:
This wasn't always the case. Matthews had some success in college pushing around weaker, smaller guards, though in his transition to the NBA he admits to lacking the strength to do so initially. Now, Matthews uses possessions in the post with about triple the frequency as he did during his rookie season, per Synergy Sports – a tribute to his work in the weight room and on the practice court. All the while, Matthews has watched his peers closely, learning the finer points and the dark arts alike from those guards who played against type by working the post.
"Joe Johnson was one of my favorite players," Matthews said. "Joe Johnson spends a lot of time on the block. I watched Paul Pierce and his footwork. I got to play with Andre Miller. You look at Andre Miller and you don't think he should ever be able to get a bucket in the NBA, but he's been doing it for years."
Before my chat with Matthews, he quite literally put on a clinic for Blazers sophomore Allen Crabbe. They walk through drop steps, shot fakes, face-ups. Crabbe is thinner than Matthews, but the veteran shows him ways to get a quick step or use his defender's angle against him. Matthews has cobbled together his repertoire carefully, with a counter for every occasion.
"First, I'm reading if they're gonna let me play one-on-one or not," Matthews said. "If they let me play one-on-one, well then I just kind of read the defender, read the space that they're giving me. As an offensive player, you want to try to develop ways to score in every kind of situation. If they're physical, I've got moves that I can go to for that. If they play off, I've got moves I can go to for that. If they force middle, force me baseline, I've got an arsenal I think that I can get to."
Matthews isn't a high-usage post player by any means, but his work on the block has definite value for the way it contorts an opposing defense. Even at the highest levels of basketball, many teams still don't quite have a feel for how to respond to a guard posting up. Responsibilities are shuffled. Help sometimes comes too quickly or too desperately. It's a scenario that feels uncomfortable because it's unfamiliar, and players like Matthews take full advantage.
"I think teams are more apt to game plan for a big," Matthews said. "When you go against the Trail Blazers, you know you've gotta deal with L.A.'s post-ups. Then, for one, bigs have been playing post defense on the block their whole lives. Guards haven't. So I think that throws a little monkey wrench in people's plans and puts them in binds they may not ordinarily be in."
Depending on Portland's opponent, Matthews' work in the post could be a source for six or eight points, a means to prevent an opponent from going too small in the backcourt, or an inversion to challenge the defensive structure from a new angle. All are in play because Matthews has the skill to afford the Blazers the opportunity.
It's in contributions like this that Matthews has crystallized his value. No matter the occasion he finds ways to contribute. Matthews' jumper is now a constant, shaping the way that opponents can defend the Blazers' stars and punishing them for any negligence. Through tenacity alone he has become a standout defender, able to check bigger and quicker opponents despite fairly standard wingspan. With his work in the post, Matthews exploits and controls. To bring all of the above with so little risk makes Matthews exemplary in his field – a role player so complete that he borders on something more.