The Chicago-based Meanstreets AAU basketball program has been good to the University of Kentucky.
Anthony Davis played there before leading UK to a national championship in 2012. Another Meanstreets alum, incoming freshman point guard Tyler Ulis, is already generating buzz, even months before his first game and despite the presence of established starter Andrew Harrison.
Shooting guard Charles Matthews is the latest to join this impressive legacy, set to join the Wildcats in the fall of 2015. The 6'6", 175-pound guard's impressive length was a perfect complement to Ulis' explosive quickness during their time as AAU teammates.
To Matthews' credit, he's realistic about what lies ahead of him and isn't treating UK as the express lane to the NBA.
"I'm not a one-and-done yet," Matthews told Bleacher Report by phone from his home in Chicago. "I don't know what it takes to be a one-and-done, because I haven't achieved it. But one common factor I see through all the people that have done it is hard work. There's gonna have to be some luck, too, some blessings from God, but it's really just that grind-it-out mindset, falling in love with the process."
Matthews, out of St. Rita High School, is currently a 4-star prospect, ranked No. 41 in the 247 Sports composite. He averaged 11.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals in eight EYBL games for Meanstreets.
Until early June, Matthews sat in the top 20 carrying that precious fifth star next to his name, but the summer has been unkind. St. Rita coach Gary DeCesare was vocal in his belief that his player was being treated unfairly by the ranking services.
"He had a groin injury that had been bothering him," DeCesare said to CatsPause.com in late June (h/t 247 Sports). "He rested it and then he reinjured it and missed two EYBLs. The more people I talk to the more that didn't even know he was injured. He was ranked high for a reason. How people just drop a guy 20-plus spots in the rankings because he didn't play is ludicrous."
Matthews missed a pair of Nike EYBL events in Minneapolis, but he later took MVP honors in a three-on-three tournament at the USA Basketball training center in Colorado Springs and played well in the NBPA Top 100 camp in Charlottesville, Virginia.
B/R had originally intended to catch up to Matthews at the AAU National Championships and Super Showcase in Louisville, but a stomach ailment kept him home for that event. With his recruitment long done—Matthews committed to UK back in February—he didn't feel the pressure to show up and perform the way a prospect still fighting for high-level offers may have.
"My focus is clear," Matthews said. "It's all about bettering yourself, being ready to help your team, whatever team you're on. Less pressure, you can just go out and play the game you love and work on getting better each and every day."
Coach Cal Drops the Hammer
That work to get better will serve Matthews well in Lexington, and the first person he credits with warning him about UK's competitive environment is the man who nurtures said environment: Wildcats coach John Calipari.
"First thing he told me was that it's tough," Matthews said of Coach Cal. "He let me know that this school's not for everybody. And he also let me know that he's not givin' me nothin'. Everything that I gain—playing time, accolades, whatever—it's all gonna be because I worked for it."
Players looking for promises would be well served to look elsewhere, according to Matthews' description of Calipari's pitch.
"He doesn't tell you you're gonna come in and be the man, that you're gonna start, anything like that. I feel that those who are—not afraid of competition, but just impatient, expect things to come immediately, I honestly don't feel that's a great fit for them. If you think you'll come in and be the best player, that you can slack off every now and then, I don't think Coach Cal is the coach for you."
The blunt honesty would scare off some recruits, but according to Matthews it may be the primary feature that makes Calipari and Kentucky a national force.
"Honestly, I feel he says everything that a normal coach wouldn't say," Matthews said of Coach Cal. "I think that's why those who can accept it and buy into it go on to achieve such greatness throughout their run there."
Getting Better All the Time
In terms of his own personal strengths and weaknesses, Matthews isn't one to split hairs.
"I'm one of those guys who's big on room to improve on everything," Matthews said. "Even the best aspect of your game, you can increase to another level."
Meanstreets assistant coach Christopher Buggs is a bit more willing to be critical.
"We've been really working with him on his ball-handling, shooting and decision-making," Buggs told B/R at AAU Nationals. "He was used to last year, Tyler Ulis making all the plays, and he could be the finisher. This year, we want him to be more of a playmaker."
If Matthews can grasp the finer points of managing an offense, Buggs considers his ceiling limitless.
"At Kentucky, I think he'll bring versatility. He can play 1 through 3 easily, because he's 6'5", and he could be 6'6" or 6'7" by the time he gets to Kentucky. Right now, he's one of the best at getting to the basket, and he's an elite defender when he wants to be with his length and athleticism."
That versatility will be key for Matthews' hopes of early playing time at UK. When he arrives, Ulis and Devin Booker will stake early claims to the starting backcourt positions, which could see Matthews slide to the wing.
For a player as highly regarded as Matthews, the summer circuit can offer precious little time to improve on one's flaws. The schedule of EYBL events, AAU showcases and assorted other individual camps takes away a traditional training window, according to Buggs.
"June is (usually) a month where you train," Buggs said, "but for him, it's all these camps and things. So, it's tough for him to really develop and work on those things constantly. It's gonna be big for him in August, September and October, for the high school season."
Buggs expects a seamless transition to college for both Ulis and Matthews, because he considers Meanstreets and UK similarly difficult places to excel.
"We're hard on our players to make them tough mentally and physically," Buggs said. "What we want is for our guys to be able to go to the next level and play for a guy like Coach Cal, who's also tough and gets the best out of you."
I know the hard work will pay off one day.— Charles Matthews (@CMATT_4) June 17, 2014
Sick With Regret
With Matthews convalescing at home, Meanstreets struggled at the AAU Super Showcase, dropping all three pool games by a combined 53 points.
Matthews expressed disappointment over the timing of the illness, and not just for the effect on his team. He's also very well aware that the Showcase was held in front of some people who were very interested in seeing him in person.
"Can you let every UK fan know I'm really sorry?" he asked. "My sickness didn't let me make the trip, but I'll see 'em all at Big Blue Madness."
Kentucky fans, is it a date?