Matthews’ once-in-a-lifetime story goes Hollywood
PORTLAND — Wesley Matthews did not duck the question. Nor did he deflect it with misdirection or offer a soft, easy response.
Instead, the newly signed Portland Trail Blazers guard did exactly what he has done since he entered the NBA last season as an undrafted rookie: He manned up and dealt with the issue head on.
Asked Wednesday during an introductory press conference at Dawson Park if the Blazers had recently overpaid for the 23-year-old former Utah wing, Matthews said maybe.
But either way, the five-year, $34-million deal Matthews received before the start of his second year in the league was not going to change him.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Matthews earned a starting spot last season with the Jazz through hard work, dedication and perseverance. And as he averaged 9.4 points and shot 48.3 percent from the floor — often while guarding an opponent’s premier offensive threat — he proved every critic wrong who ever doubted his potential or desire.
Moreover, Matthews sounded sincere and believable when he said that the new money will affect neither his heart nor his dedication. The big pay day is for his loved ones. Matthews? He is heading straight back to the gym.
“This game is what’s for me. I love this game,” Matthews said. “Before I signed, I said, ‘This money isn’t going to change a thing about me.’ A lot of people respected what I did because of how hard I played, how hard I went. That wasn’t to get a big contract like this. This big contract helps my family out. I’m all right as long as I can play this game.”
Still, the Blazers are betting big on Matthews. He was the team’s No. 1 option during free agency. And Portland went hard after the Madison, Wis., native, front loading a restricted free agent offer sheet with $9.2 million during the first year in the hope that Utah would allow him to walk.
The Jazz did just that. And Matthews has traded the mountains of Salt Lake City for the devotion of Rip City.
“Wesley is a great fit for our team both on and off the court,” Blazers general manager Rich Cho said in a prepared statement. “As only a first-year player last season, he demonstrated a lot of maturity and ability. He’s already one of the best young defenders in the league, and offensively he’s an emerging threat. He’s going to add a lot of versatility to our roster.”
Matthews’ versatility is already creating questions.
Brandon Roy, Portland’s franchise player, holds down the starting shooting guard spot. Meanwhile, third-year forward Nicolas Batum has claimed the starting small forward role.
Roy’s status is obviously locked in place. But while Portland coach Nate McMillan declared Batum as the “future” last season — during which he replaced former first-round draft pick Martell Webster in the lineup — Matthews is not far behind.
As a result, Chad Buchanan, Blazers director of college scouting, said that Matthews will be given a legitimate chance to compete with Batum for a starting position during training camp for the 2010-11 campaign.
“It’s going to be a challenge for (Matthews),” Buchanan said. “But we’re not going to tell him, ‘You’re coming in here and you’re going to come off the bench.’ ”
Matthews echoed Buchanan’s confidence. He stated that he considers himself to be an NBA starter, and acknowledged Portland gave him a big-money contract for a reason. Still, Matthews was careful to pay tribute to Batum, and conceded that he is not sure what his role will be with the Blazers next season.
“I made my living (in Utah) off of, ‘There’s not a spot for you.’ Or ‘We don’t know if you’re good enough to do this or do that,’ ” Matthews said. “I’m not coming in saying that I’m going to start for Portland. But I do know that I’m going to give myself a chance every night to be on that court.”
Matthews’ self belief stems from his stellar rookie season. Playing for Jerry Sloan, Utah’s longtime stern and methodical coach who is notoriously hard on first-year players, Matthews appeared in all 82 regular-season games, starting 48. His ascension continued in the playoffs, where he started all 10 of the Jazz’s games, averaging 13.2 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Matthews said he could not help but notice the same competitive streak from the Blazers last season, as he played against a team that fought off 311 games missed due to injury to post its second consecutive 50-win season and playoff appearance.
“The fact that they made it to the playoffs this past season just speaks volumes of the character; the heart that they had; the coaching staff,” Matthews said. “On paper, with all the injuries and stuff, a lot of people had written Portland off.”
Much like the NBA wrote off Matthews, when he was a four-year college player who suddenly could not find an open door into the league.
Just one year ago, Matthews was petitioning his agent to help him find a European team who could recognize his talent.
Now, Matthews is the newest piece of a Portland puzzle that one day hopes to resemble the image of a championship organization.
Matthews described his current life as being an amazing blessing — a once-in-a-lifetime story that only God could write. And after joking that he does not want to jinx his Hollywood script,
Matthews offered a collection of young Blazers fans some old-fashioned advice.
“Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it,” Matthews said. “They told me I couldn’t be an NBA player. I think I proved them wrong. Whatever it is you want to be, whether that’s sports or not. Enjoy it; have fun with it; work at it; go to sleep; wake up; work at it again. The sky’s really the limit for whatever it is you want to do.”
The Blazers are willing to trade guard Rudy Fernandez, team sources said Wednesday. However, Portland is also open to keeping the third-year player, and will not give him away for “free.” The organization feels that the situation with Fernandez has come to a head, and his continued talk about playing elsewhere has created a situation that requires a resolution. If Fernandez chooses to play in Europe next season, the Blazers could place him on the suspended list. The team does not think it will come to that, though. … Portland is expected to soon make a decision about the futures of guards Patty Mills and Armon Johnson. Both are vying for a spot on the Blazers roster following strong Summer League showings. There is a chance both could make the team if Portland creates roster space with a trade.
Who: Wesley Matthews
Previous team: Utah
2009-10 stats: 9.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, 48.3 shooting percentage, 38.2 3-point percentage
Contract: $34 million for five years
Analysis: Matthews will compete with Nicolas Batum for the Blazers’ starting forward position. The job is Batum’s to lose. But Matthews’ ability to consistently knock down shots from the perimeter and finish at the basket, coupled with his lock-down defensive talents, could press Portland to find as much playing time for the second-year guard as possible.
On starting: “I made my living (in Utah) off of, ‘There’s not a spot for you.’ Or ‘We don’t know if you’re good enough to do this or do that,’ I’m not coming in saying that I’m going to start for Portland. But I do know that I’m going to give myself a chance every night to be on that court.”