It’s Dec. 29, 2015, and No. 14 Purdue clings to a three-point lead with 80 seconds remaining at Wisconsin. Sophomore guard Dakota Mathias leaks out to the left corner off a weakside screen and promptly cans a triple. “You cannot lose the Midwestern Cowboy!” Big Ten Network’s Rick Pizzo shouts on the game broadcast. Purdue’s next possession, now 34.5 seconds separating the Boilermakers from victory, Mathias sprints around a double-screen on the baseline, flares to the right corner and launches a dagger. It splashes through the net, Mathias slaying the Badgers like a quick-triggered gunslinger. “The nickname stuck,” Mathias now laughs. Today, that shooting ability—Mathias boasts the second-best three-point percentage (46.6%) in the draft—largely has the former Boilermaker firmly on the second-round radar of the June 21 NBA draft.
Purdue’s all-time leader in made three-pointers has long had a home-court advantage when it comes to long range sniping. Literally. When he was five years old, Mathias’s father Dan and his church league running mates handcrafted a gym off the family’s Elida, Ohio, house. The Mathias’s sliding doors, which once led toward a green backyard, opened to a true indoor, half-court gym afterward. Dan and a pickup teammate who practiced carpentry laid the original concrete pad and built the rafters with 2x6s. Two months later, they completed the miniature facility with a 26-foot-tall ceiling, stretching 44-feet wide and 26-feet deep to feature a three-point line, all for the relatively low cost of $25,000. “People that put in in-ground pools,” Dan says. “This was probably cheaper than doing that.”
The youngest of Dan’s three boys, Mathias would scurry onto the court when his brothers’ friends, some nearly a decade his senior, ran 3-on-3. “They’d beat on him,” Dan says. “So I knew he was going to be tough and skilled.” Off the floor, the family engaged in fiery bouts of Euchre, a trick-taking card game frequently played in partners. The collective environment intrinsically yielded a basketball phenom, with a savvy to match a lethal stroke honed within the tailor-made court. “Everybody tagged him as a shooter,” says Purdue assistant Greg Gary. “But I felt like he was a great passer and had an extremely high IQ.”
Gary first scouted a 16-year-old Mathias inside the tiny side gym of an Indianapolis AAU tournament, making the trip based on a suggestion from a coaching friend. Mathias would rain pull-up triples from the volleyball line well beyond the three-point arc. He used deft footwork to score out of the post. Yet the Boilermakers were struck by the boy’s playmaking knack. “His passing is what kind of separates him from other people,” says Purdue head coach Matt Painter. “He’s been somebody that knew where people were on the court, knew time and score, just like a coach on the court.”
Throughout Mathias’s career, Painter often called for offensive actions to swing the ball his direction. The Boilermakers staff knew some sets wouldn’t likely create a shot for Mathias, but he would consistently make the right read. “We knew the ball would then go to the next guy if he didn’t have something,” says Painter. “He’s probably the best decision maker I’ve been around.” Mathias holds the second-highest assist-to-turnover ratio in school history.
He remained close with Gary, who often invited players to his home for dinner with his family. He long valued any opportunity to bond with players off the floor and away from campus, when ball handlers dropped their guards and big men were simply young men. His wife, Claudia, pampered players with a jambalaya recipe she learned during Gary’s six-year tenure at Tulane, and chicken and rice dishes she inherited from her Portuguese background. “Pasta, salmon, you name it,” Gary says. “I overachieved.”
In the process, Mathias grew close with Gary’s daughter Gabby. They soon began dating, leading to jokes and barbs one would expect within a men’s college basketball team. “I told him you better treat her right,” Gary says. “Because if you don’t, then I’m not gonna run any more plays for you.” At the end of a December 2017 film session, Mathias leaned over to close the door behind teammates and privately asked the coach permission for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He proposed under the holiday lights at the Indianapolis Zoo, the wedding set for March 2019.
The film room was equally important for Mathias’s career. In addition to stretching opposing defenses, Purdue often tasked him with guarding opponent’s premier offensive weapons. “He put more time in than other people,” Painter says. “He was religious in his ability to kind of figure out things through film to help him out there on the court.” The Boilermakers thrashed No. 2 Arizona 89–64 last November, largely thanks to the 6’4” Mathias hounding Wildcats star Allonzo Trier. His 6’6” wingspan helped limited the guard to eight points on 3–of–10 shooting, in addition to yielding four turnovers. “He’s an animal,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said after the game. Mathias’s film study had unearthed answers to Trier’s test, with tape revealing too many defenders dying on the screens Arizona’s bigs stationed for him. “I knew when the screen was coming and I had to push through it,” he explains. “Make him catch the ball out a few feet further than he wanted to and get him out of his sweet spot, his percentages go down.”
Mathias, who earned Big Team All-Defense Team honors in both 2017 and 2018, can equally recite strategies to guard bigger wings like Keita Bates-Diop off the top of his head. “He loves the mid post. He loves to square up and shoot over the top. My biggest thing was just keeping the ball out of his hands closer to the basket. Guarding a big guy that’s 6’8” and has length, I was just trying to push him out as far as I could to make that catch,” he says. “You know some of their actions, they do a lot of cross-screen action to move the ball. So I knew that was coming, so I could kind of jump it, just pushed him out a little farther than he wanted to be.”
He has shed 10 pounds since Purdue fell to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16, showcasing a quicker pace to the impeccable footwork Painter first noticed on the AAU circuit. In a workout for the Lakers, he recorded a 34.5” one-step vertical. At the conclusion of Raptors workouts, Toronto puts 2:30 on the clock, instructing players to shoot threes off the catch following full-court sprints and pull-up triples from the wings and the top of the key. After launching, players inch out as many full-court layups for the remainder of the time frame. Mathias drained 13–of–16 long balls en route to setting the all-time Raptors workout record with 53 points. “No matter what level he gets to professionally, he’ll be productive,” Painter says. One NBA team seems poised to experience that first hand.