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How Trail Blazers' Wes Matthews Took Being Underrated to the Next Level

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2014

Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews gestures after hitting a shot to narrow the lead to one point for the Denver Nuggets late in the fourth quarter of the Trail Blazers' 105-103 victory in an NBA basketball game in Denver on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

There was a time not too long ago when Wesley Matthews' name didn't elicit the outpouring of, "You know what? That guy is actually really good!" qualifiers that it does today.

He was an under-recruited high schooler, a vastly overlooked NBA prospect who didn't even hear his name called on draft night; a once-criticized guard who was considered initially undeserving of his five-year, $35 million contract, which he signed after his rookie season in Utah and which expires after this year.

There's just something about Buzz Williams. The Virginia Tech basketball coach is so proficient at developing wings, it's surprising he's not able to fly.

Before joining the Hokies, Williams sweat his way through six seasons—and more than six suits—leading Marquette. And it was there that he would come across Matthews, a then-22-year-old senior shooting guard trying to make the leap from quality contributor to noticeable standout.

Now, we're at the point where at least one person believes Matthews, who is averaging 16.8 points per game on 48-40-70 shooting, is the best two-way shooting guard in the NBA. (We'll ignore the fact that the person with such bold opinions is Matthews, himself.)

He's one of those typical Buzz Williams wings: feisty, overly competitive and competent as a two-way player.

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That's the thing about Williams' perimeter players. They adopt this defensive mentality, which tends to carry them to success that most never really figured was coming.

Think about it: Marquette guys tend to outplay expectations.

Jimmy Butler, who was one pick away from becoming a second-round selection in the 2011 draft, has turned himself into the league's actual best two-way shooting guard. Jae Crowder is a former second-rounder who has stuck around because of his defense and basketball smarts.

Even guys like Vander Blue (can't shoot) and Darius Johnson-Odom (too small for a 2-guard, too scoring-oriented to run an offense), ones mostly without NBA careers, have outplayed early-path forecasts—in that there were none.

Then there's Matthews, who has gone from undrafted afterthought to 40 percent three-point shooter and defensive rubber for the team with the NBA's second-best record.

"I wish I had 12 Wes Matthewses," former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said of the Marquette alum's competitive spirit during his rookie year, as New York Knicks play-by-play man Mike Breen mentioned during Sunday's broadcast from Portland.

Want the classic Matthews mentality? Let's go back to draft night, 2009, which he spent working working out in his high school gym, only to learn by the end of the evening that he wouldn't be selected.

"I look at the phone and it was 11:40, something like that," Matthews explains. "At that point I was like ‘It's not gonna happen'. Grandma came up to me. 'You've got 'til 12:01 to be mad about this, pissed off about this, feel cheated about it,' and it was almost like on draft night, I was just like, really? Like, really? I gotta do this again? Alright, I've got 'til 12:01. I'mma be pissed. I'mma kick some stuff. I'm gonna throw some stuff over. I'm gonna turn some chairs over and then once 12:01 hits, it's time to shock the world."

Grandma wasn't the only one giving Wes that attitude. Even from a young age, Matthews' mother pushed defense on her son as a way for a previously unknown entity to get noticed.

“My mom said the best way to get seen is to guard the other team’s best player, because all the college coaches are watching him,’’ Matthews described to the Oregonian's Jason Quick. “They had to see, ‘Dang, so-and-so had only five points. Who’s guarding him?'"

He did the shocking quite quickly, making an impact right away with the Jazz, hitting free agency after just one year and turning himself into the perfect glue guy for the Portland Trail Blazers, further evidenced by his 28-point performance during which he made six threes against the Knicks on Sunday.

On a team that loves to have shooters space the floor around Damian Lillard pick-and-rolls with LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, Matthews and Nicolas Batum hold an intrinsic valueeven if Batum's scoring numbers are uncharacteristic this season.

It's Matthews' catch-and-shoot ability which sets him apart.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

The drive-and-kick is an essential aspect of the Portland attack. More than 70 percent of the Blazers' three-point attemptsand man, are there a lot of thosecome in catch-and-shoot situations. Matthews is key to capitalizing on those, mainly because he's particularly good at knocking down open threes—and at finding them. 

There's a reason the Blazers marksman is so consistent with his three-point production: He almost exclusively takes open shots.

Sure, every once in a while, you'll see Matthews take it off the bounce and pull up or go all the way to the rim, but he's mostly about catch-and-shootsespecially from long range. And he puts up those attempts while mostly unguarded. 

The Portland offense does a wonderful job of putting the defense in situations where it wantsor needsto help. It's part of what makes the scoring attack so successful. Think of it as Rick Carlisle's offense put into Google Translate, which isn't too odd considering Terry Stotts is a one-time Carlisle assistant. 

Forcing a defense to execute quick decisions is the best way to incite mistakes, and because of the Blazers' prosperity in implementing such strategies, Matthews often sees defenders straying off him to collapse into the lane only to be left shaking their heads seconds later.

Matthews has had at least four feet of room between himself and the closest defender on almost 60 percent of his three-point attempts this season. He's shooting just below 42 percent on those chances.

The 28-year-old is becoming more of an extremist with age. He's attempting threes at a higher rate now than he ever has, and it's no coincidence that he's grown more efficient in the process, posting 61 percent true shooting this season, a career high.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

You're not going to see him handle the ball often, and that's because of Stotts' preferred scheme.

If Lillard isn't dribbling around screens, Aldridge is posting up or Batum is acting as a secondary ball-handler and creator. But that's Matthews' role, and it's also why he and Batum are so complementary.

That statement holds true on defense, too. Matthews' flexibility, hence "rubber," makes it easier for Portland to mend defensive lineups.

It's possible his best defensive trait is that he's capable of defending both 2s and 3s, a characteristic the point-preventing Batum clearly shares. You'll see Portland assign a stouter Matthews to small forwards when the Blazers play against bigger, post-up-heavy ones.

He may not be particularly fleet of foot, but his understanding of how to scamper to the proper spots makes him a capable defender of shooting guards, as well.

There's a reason the Cleveland Cavaliers have shown interest in the Blazers' glue guy, as Northeast Ohio Media Group's Chris Haynes reported in mid-December: These are basically all the traits they're longing for in a 2-guard. As Haynes noted, "Cleveland has adored Matthews for quite some time and its quest of him has been repeatedly vetoed."

What do the Cavs want? A 2-guard who doesn't need the ball to impact a game offensively and who can provide defensive malleability by allowing LeBron James to switch onto easier assignments in spurts. But there's one problem with this plan: It's probably not going to happen.

Portland values its chemistry as much as any team in the league. Continuity has become part of today's NBA vernacular, and Matthewswho's finishing up his fifth year in Rip City—is an important piece of that. 

He's gone from Buzz Williams to buzzword within an essential basketball concept.

The Blazers have their fair share of reworking to do this summer when Matthews hits the open market along with Aldridge and Lopez. (Portland has Bird rights on all three.)

General manager Neil Olshey has room to operate, possibly opening up about $30 million below 2015-16's expected salary cap, and it would be in character for him to prefer retaining his guys.

Matthews has gained his current shape somewhat because of the mold around him. Portland is the perfect fit for his skill set. But he will be sought this summer. For his shooting. For his smarts. For his two-way mentality. He could find his phone buzzing a whole lot come July 1.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade but maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of Dec. 29 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com. Contract and salary-cap information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.

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