If you are any kind of athlete you like to be able to point to some statistic in order to prove your worth. The ability for an athlete to be able to point to something tangible leads to an athlete getting millions of dollars worth of contracts.
First, this season the Jazz have employed a new defensive grading system. After each game Jefferson Sweeney, the Jazz video coordinator, will look at the video of every defensive possession, and put together the grade for each player after each game. Which Jazz player has consistently received the highest grade for his defensive prowess? Andrei Kirilenko? Ronnie Brewer? Deron Williams?
Nope—it is undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews.
Matthews has been able to find playing time because of his defensive abilities. He will do the small things on the defensive end to help the Jazz win basketball games. Matthews seems to be fearless, regardless of his defensive assignment.
For a coach like Jerry Sloan, the ability for a player to play tough, hard-nosed defense is paramount.
Second, the Utah Jazz are 7-2 with Wesley Matthews in the starting lineup, and 3-5 when he isn’t starting. The more minutes Matthews has played the better the success of the Jazz. Can Matthews really take all the credit for the Jazz’s recent success while he is in the starting lineup? No. Nonetheless, it is a very impressive stat to show he is making some kind of difference for the team.
There are reasons why Matthews went undrafted. He is not the most athletic player on the court, and he can’t play above the rim like other wing players in the NBA. He is not the quickest player on the court, nor is he a sharp shooter like a Kyle Korver.
What Matthews brings to the court is an incredibly high basketball IQ, a large amount of self-confidence and poise for a rookie, and knowledge of how to play to make his teammates better. All of these traits are lacking in the current NBA. These traits are also normally associated with veteran players in the NBA, and not undrafted rookie players.
Kevin O’Conner struck gold when he found Wesley Matthews; however, it was Wesley Matthews who took advantage of the opportunity given to him to find a place on this Jazz team. Matthews played for the Jazz’ summer league team, and wasn’t very impressive in any of the summer league games. When he did impress the Jazz decision makers it was during practices in the summer.
After playing for the Jazz in the summer league, Matthews went and played on the King’s summer league team. He didn’t get an invite to the King’s training camp. Instead of giving up on his NBA dreams and heading overseas, like many other players, Matthews got an invite to the Jazz training camp.
He was a long shot to make the roster. The Jazz had a log jam at the two-guard position, and the Jazz were already extended financially. The Jazz are a small market team and they have the third highest payroll in the NBA—the last thing the Jazz wanted was to carry another contract.
Despite all of the obstacles facing Matthews, he was impressive in the preseason. He benefited from a rash of injuries to Jazz players, and made the regular season roster with a non-guaranteed contract. Injuries continued to affect the Jazz until he was finally given an opportunity to start. Matthews was ready when his opportunity came, and he took full advantage of it.
Matthews’ fight to make it in the NBA is by no means over. He still doesn’t have a guaranteed contract, although it seems like it is only a matter of waiting for the January deadline for Matthews’ contract to be made official.
Keeping his playing time is now the key for Wesley Matthews. CJ Miles, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Price are all on the verge of coming back from injuries. CJ Miles started practicing with the Jazz on Wednesday and appears ready to play in the game Friday against the Indiana Pacers.
Sloan has always had a belief that a player shouldn’t lose their position in the rotation due to injury; however, he hinted that he is reluctant to change the current starting five of the Jazz. What needs to be seen is whether Sloan is waiting for Miles to get back to 100 percent before giving him back the starting job or if he will continue to stick with the rookie Matthews as the starter regardless of Miles’ health.
The Jazz like to have the problem of having too many good players at a position. The trick now is to find the two-guard who will compliment the other players on the court. Matthews could make the case that he is the best fit at two-guard for the Utah Jazz.
While Korver is the best pure shooter of the Jazz’s two-guards, he is also a defensive liability when he is on the court.
Miles has never proven himself to be a consistent player. He is a great shooter when his shot is falling, but he will damage the Jazz with poor shot selection when his shot is off. Miles has also struggled to rebound the basketball, and lacked the size in the past to play physical defense. CJ bulked up in the off-season, in hopes of being a more physical presence on the court.
Price has always been stuck as an undersized combo guard in the NBA. He has too much of a shot first mentality to get the Jazz into the offense when he is running the point, and he is too small to contend with the bigger two-guards in the NBA.
Matthews’ game isn’t perfect. He is still making rookie mistakes when he is on the court, but Matthews does the little things to earn playing time in the Jazz system.
Matthews is active on both ends of the court. On offense he will finish cuts, set strong hard back screens, and he concerns himself with the proper spacing the Jazz need to run their offense. Plus, he does the majority of his work on the offensive end without the ball. Something the majority of Jazz players and NBA players seem reluctant to do.
The current starting five for the Jazz are playing very unselfish basketball. Matthews helps to promote this style of basketball with his play. Most rookies think they must shoot the ball in order to prove they deserve to stay on the court.
Matthews is an adequate shooter at the two-guard position in the Jazz offense, but Matthews looks first to create easy buckets for the Jazz. This usually means he will pass the ball to a cutter, rather than taking a jump shot.
Defensively, Matthews is very active. He allows the Jazz not to use Ronnie Brewer and Andrei Kirilenko to guard the other team’s best player. This allows Kirilenko and Brewer to play more off the ball and help defense, and that leads to more blocks, steals, and easy transition points for the Jazz.
There is also an X-factor that Matthews brings to the court. He will get on the floor to dig out a ball, and he isn’t afraid to get physical with players. The best example of this normally unheralded skill came against the Spurs in San Antonio.
Early in the game, the Spurs were able to knock the ball away from the Jazz and pass it to a cherry-picking Tim Duncan for what appeared to be a wide open lay-up. Matthews, did not give up on the play, he sprinted from underneath his own basket and ran down Duncan from behind. He fouled Duncan hard, throwing the bigger man (cleanly) to the ground.
Matthews didn’t catch Duncan, or help him up after the play. He sent a message to both the Spurs and to his Jazz teammates that nobody will score easy buckets on the Jazz.
Matthews cares about winning more than making friends around the league. A lot of current Jazz players need to follow his example, and emulate his attitude.
Small things like fouling Duncan hard on a breakaway lay-up are things which catch the attention of Jerry Sloan. One of the reasons he has given so much praise on Matthews this season.
Sloan recently commented, “He’s played pretty well all along. He plays smart. He’s not afraid.”
Matthews might not think much of such comments, but for Sloan this is high praise. For Sloan to be speaking like that about a rookie is as rare as Charles Barkley hitting a decent golf shot. Remember it when it happens and enjoy it, because it won’t be happening again.
Jazz fans like a blue collar, hard working, tough players like Matthews. So far he hasn’t been given anything in the NBA free, he has had to earn every single minute he gets on the floor. The Jazz have been searching for a solution for their problems at the two-guard, and it seems like Matthews is that solution.
Wesley Matthews beat the odds just to make the Jazz roster, and he defied all logic when he got a chance to start in the NBA his rookie year. Now he has the chance to beat out the Jazz’ incumbent two-guards for the starting role.
How? By continuing to play the style of basketball that caught the eye of the Jazz coaching staff—hard-nosed, smart, Jerry Sloan style basketball.
What do you do with a problem like Wesley Matthews? You enjoy it, and find him minutes in the rotation!
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