Marquette's Men's Basketball Family Extends To The NBA Ranks
Jan. 6, 2010
By Dan McGrath, '72
In case you were wondering, the "Matthews" who has been showing up in NBA box scores with the Utah Jazz---or "Mthws" if your newspaper has taken to eliminating vowels to save on newsprint---is Marquette's own Wesley Matthews, who helped the Golden Eagles to a 94-41 record and four straight NCAA tournament appearances as a four-year starter from 2005-09.
Matthews, a free-agent rookie, not only made the Jazz roster, he was in the starting lineup for 19 of the season's first 34 games and was averaging 8 ppg in 24 minutes through Jan. 5.
"I guess it's a surprise to some people that I'm in the league, but I knew I was ready," Matthews said. "And I was confident in what I could do."
Like fellow "amigos" Dominic James and Jerel McNeal, Matthews was disappointed when he didn't hear his name called in the NBA draft last June. Eight teams went the "futures" route in the second round, picking European big men whom they didn't intend to sign, choosing instead to retain their rights in the event they develop into NBA prospects while playing overseas. In a two-round draft, that limited the opportunities for all but the surest of sure things, even highly decorated college stars such as the Marquette threesome.
"We liked Wes, and we probably would have taken him if a few things had gone differently earlier in the draft," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said.
Walt Perrin, Utah's Chicago-based vice president for player personnel, saw Matthews often at Marquette and became an advocate even though the 6-foot-5 Matthews was frequently playing out of position underneath the basket.
"It wasn't where he played so much as how he played," Perrin said. "He was tough and smart with good instincts, a pretty good shot and the ability to make his teammates better."
James, NBA height-challenged at a generously listed 5-11, went to Mersir, Turkey, to play after an knee injury thwarted his opportunity with the Milwaukee Bucks' summer league team. McNeal played summer-league ball with the Sacramento Kings, but ran into a logjam of guards with guaranteed contracts and was a late cut by the Los Angeles Clippers after a training-camp tryout. He's playing in Mons, Belgium, and learning to be a point guard, according to agent Doug Neustadt.
Matthews played with the Jazz's summer league team, and while he didn't put up dazzling numbers, he impressed decision-makers with his work ethic, his maturity and his grasp of the NBA game.
"He wasn't misused at Marquette, but he had to play inside because they didn't have any size," O'Connor said. "We realized that. We told him to concentrate on doing the work and learning our system, and never mind the numbers."
The break between the end of summer league and the opening of training camp was "the longest two weeks of my life," Matthews said. But once the Jazz brought him to camp, he found himself in the right place at the right time. Persistent injuries forced Matt Harpring to retire. Kyle Korver made a slow recovery from knee surgery. C.J. Miles was hobbled by a series of ailments. A spot in the Jazz backcourt was available if Matthews could earn it, and he did.
"He was as well-prepared defensively as any kid we've ever brought in," O'Connor said, "and that's a credit to Marquette's coaches."
He'd have to be prepared in order to earn his bones with Jazz coach Jerry Sloan---the Hall of Famer and sharp-elbowed former Chicago Bulls stopper has little regard for rookies generally and none for those who aren't committed to defense.
"Wes is the type of kid who will thrive under Jerry because he works," O'Connor said.
Matthews credits his college preparation.
"Everybody in the NBA is really good, so it's a challenge every night," he said. "But after four years at Marquette and four years in the Big East, I felt I was ready for it, especially with the way Coach Crean and Buzz [Williams] stressed defense. It probably wasn't as big an adjustment for me as it would be for some people."
Filling the "down time"---now there's an adjustment. "At Marquette, we practiced, lifted, played games, went to school---we were always pretty busy," Matthews said. "Here we play more games, but we don't practice as much and I'm not in school, so you're on your own with a lot of time on your hands. You've got to be careful to get your rest and take care of your body."
Matthews likes Salt Lake City---"a little different from what I'm used to, but it's nice, and there's plenty to do." Former Marquette teammate Trend Blackledge has moved there to provide some companionship as Matthews transitions from student-athlete to on-the-rise professional.
"It's a job now, but it's what I've always wanted to do and I feel fortunate to have this opportunity," he said. "I've always prided myself on working hard and playing with a lot of heart. That's what got me here, and I'm going to keep going."
Marquette, it seems is never far from his thoughts.
"We played the Lakers a few weeks back and Wes was facing Kobe Bryant for the first tme," O'Connor recalled. "I thought he might be nervous, but I found him in front of a TV watching the Marquette-Wisconsin game, totally into how Marquette was doing."
Dwyane Wade, of course, remains the poster child for Marquette's NBA presence, averaging 26.4 points, 6.2 assists and 5 rebounds in another All-Star season for the Miami Heat. His supporting cast remains a work in progress.
Meanwhile, Matthews' feel-good story has helped ease the sting of disappointment for Travis Diener and Steve Novak---the 2009-10 season has been a difficult one for them.
Diener, 28, finally got on the floor for the Indiana Pacers in early January after suffering ligament damage and bone chips in his left big toe during training camp.
"I had surgery on it two years ago, but I was feeling great until about five days in when I came down on it wrong," Diener said. "I tried to play through it, but it was really sore, and they told me I needed surgery."
Diener underwent a procedure in late November and missed Indiana's first 32 games. The Pacers went 10-22, and coach Jim O'Brien welcomed him back. "We missed his fire, his leadership and his shooting," he said. "He's one of those guys who can get on a roll and not miss."
Diener averaged 5.6 points and 3.1 assists in 17 minutes over his first two seasons with Indiana. He'll be limited to 10-12 minutes game while he regains his conditioning, and hopes to make the most of it in a contract year.
"I've been in the league four years, so people know what I can do," Diener said. "It's been frustrating more than anything, and boring, especially with the team struggling. I wanted to be out there, but I had to let it heal up and not do more damage.
"There's still quite a bit of season left. The most important thing is to start winning some games."
Diener visited with Matthews when the Pacers and the Jazz played earlier this season. He sees Wade at least four times a year when the Pacers and the Heat meet, and he commiserates with longtime buddy Novak, who appeared in 24 of the Los Angeles Clippers' first 32 games, averaging just 5.2 minutes and 1.3 points.
It has been a frustrating turn of events for the 6-10 sharpshooter, who appeared to establish himself last season with a strong final month, finishing with career-best averages of 6.9 points and 16.4 minutes in 71 games.
"I sure thought so," Novak said. "I was a restricted free agent, but the Clippers said they wanted me back and would match any offer, so I re-signed."
Novak has heard his name mentioned in trade rumors, and he'd be amenable to a move.
"At my age (26) I should be playing in this league, and I thought I proved last year that I can," he said. "You have to be a good teammate and not pout or get down about it, and you have to have enough self-pride to work and shoot and lift on your own and stay sharp in case they do need you. But it's frustrating, no question."
From Boston, meanwhile, the godfather of Marquette's NBA delegation keeps tabs on his fellow Eagles.
"We are a family, a very tight-knit family," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I follow all the guys, and we talk all the time. This summer I asked Travis for a scouting report on Marquis Daniels. He gave me a good one, and we ended up signing him."
The Marquette grads have always been family, Rivers said.
"I had never met Maurice Lucas," he recalled, "and in my rookie year with Atlanta I got in a scuffle with Kyle Macy in Phoenix. Next thing I know, Luke has me off the ground in a bear hug and he's walking me away, `Come on, Marquette, settle down ...'
"We look out for each other."
Rivers traces that brotherhood to a Marquette great who played just one season of NBA basketball.
"George Thompson is the father of the Marquette legacy, as far as I'm concerned," he said of "Brute Force," MU's former career scoring leader who held that distinction from 1969 to 2009---even longer than he occupied a courtside seat as the Golden Eagles' radio analyst.
"He was the first great player and a real mentor to all of us," Rivers said. "He took me under his wing when I got there and we still talk all the time. He was not just a great player but a very classy guy."
Diener concurs with that assessment. "George was a broadcaster when I was moving up on the scoring list and he was never anything but encouraging," he said.
Diener would finish fifth with 1,691 points. McNeal (1,985) surpassed Thompson (1,773) last season.
"George set the record in three years," Diener said. "He must have been an amazing player."
And several would follow.
Dan McGrath will provide a series of men's basketball features exclusive to GoMarquette.com all season long. McGrath is sports coordinator of the Chicago News Cooperative and former sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. He is a proud 1972 graduate of Marquette University.