Utah Jazz: Wesley Matthews not playing like the rookie he is

Published: Tuesday, May 4 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — It was nighttime, last June 25. The NBA Draft had come and gone, his name hadn't even been whispered.

Young Wesley Matthews was crushed.

Yet if someone had told Matthews then that the following May he'd not only be starting at shooting guard on a playoff team, but also assigned to guard one Kobe Bryant at both the beginning and the end of Game 1 of a Western Conference semifinals series, he wouldn't have blinked.

Not stone-cold Wesley, the Jazz rookie with a father's title-winning NBA experience in his blood, a mother's unwavering support in his heart and on his arm, and ice water running through his veins.

"I would have been excited, and would have jumped at it — you know, the same way I'm attacking it now," Matthews said when presented Monday with the hypothetical that on Sunday became reality.

"Draft night was one of the worst nights that possibly could have happened to me, but at the same time it was one of the best," he added. "It made me stronger. It made me tougher. It made me want this even more. It made me grateful for the position I'm in now."

If there's one phrase that's become associated with Matthews more than any other, a middle name almost, it's "undrafted rookie."

If there's one word that best describes him, though, it's "tough."

"That's how he is. He's a tough kid, physically and mentally," point guard Deron Williams said. "He's a physical defender, he does a great job moving his feet. And he doesn't give up on plays."

"He's tough, man. He's tough as they come, on and off the court," small forward C.J. Miles added. "And going through the road he went made him even tougher."

Matthews will be a restricted free agent this offseason, but he was unrestricted altogether after all 30 NBA teams passed on him at least once and sometimes two or three times during that nightmarish June draft.

No club would spend so much a second-round selection on him because he wasn't the sole star at Milwaukee's Marquette University, didn't want to be stashed overseas, and mostly definitely isn't a big.

That the case, Matthews wound up camping in July with the Jazz.

He played for Utah's team of rookies, youngsters and free agents at the Orlando Pro Summer League, and made such a favorable impression that coach Jerry Sloan and his staff knew right away what they had.

Yet the now 23-year-old had no idea what his future held, so he also joined Sacramento's offseason team at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

He later went to the Jazz's fall camp, made a mark for himself at Utah's first preseason game against Chicago in London, took advantage of surgery-requiring injuries sustained by fellow perimeter players Miles and Kyle Korver, and hasn't looked back since.

Matthews started early this season when Miles, Korver and Andrei Kirilenko all were hurt and out, returned to the bench for a stretch, then became a full-time starter when Utah traded shooting guard and one-time lottery pick Ronnie Brewer to Memphis in February.

The whole while, he displayed the sort of traits that actually make Jerry Sloan smile.

Tenacity. Toughness. Unrelenting resolve.

The Jazz coach saw it in summer league, even if Matthews' shots weren't falling then, and he saw it again when Utah fell Sunday to the Lakers in the opening game of their best-of-seven second-round series that continues tonight at the Staples Center.

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