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

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 8:14 a.m. MDT

Jazz guard Wesley Matthews guards Lakers star Kobe Bryant during Game 1 on Sunday.   (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Jazz guard Wesley Matthews guards Lakers star Kobe Bryant during Game 1 on Sunday. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

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.

Utah's Wesley Matthews drives past the Lakers' Lamar Odom in Game 1 in Los Angeles. The shooting guard scored 14 on Sunday.     (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah's Wesley Matthews drives past the Lakers' Lamar Odom in Game 1 in Los Angeles. The shooting guard scored 14 on Sunday. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"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.

"A couple times (Sunday) in the ballgame, he was the one guy busting his can to get back and try to help stop a basket on the other end of the floor," added Sloan, who compares Matthews' doggedness to that of ex-Utah swingman and two-time Jazz Finals-team member Shandon Anderson. "That's been there all year long."

Over the course of a rookie season in which he started 48 games and did not miss one, Matthews has guarded everyone from journeymen to All-Stars like Carmelo Anthony and NBA MVP LeBron James.

Then there's Bryant, the 12-time All-Star, four-time NBA champ and former MVP and Finals MVP.

Yet none of it — not one situation, one name or face — ever fazed the rookie.

Not in the regular season, not even this postseason.

"I've guarded (Bryant) throughout the year," Matthews said. "I guarded LeBron, guarded Carmelo. You know, I love this challenge. I embrace it, and I'm willing to step up to any challenge."

He is, with no reservations whatsoever.

And he'd have it no other way.

"Because he (Bryant) wants to kill me, you know?" Matthews said.

"We're both basketball players. I mean, his resume speaks for itself. His accolades — I'll be lucky if I can get even half that. But he wants to go at me and he's tougher than anybody else, so I can't have that awe factor," he added. "I can't be, 'Oh, this is Kobe Bryant in the playoffs.' You know, afterward you can tell buddies. But now it's a job, and I want to win too."

The Jazz didn't win Sunday.

L.A. did, by five; Bryant scored 31 and shot 12-for-19 from the field, with six of points coming in the final 80 seconds on a jumper over Matthews, a drive by him and two free throws from a foul on him.

"I thought (Matthews) did a great job on him," Williams said. "Kobe just hit some amazing shots."

Still, Sloan suggested, there's room for improvement.

"I thought we'd do a little better job trying to force him back into help ... instead of him going where he wanted to go," he said. "But we're playing a young guy that's never played Kobe Bryant before (this season).

"He (Matthews) put a tremendous effort in it, to try to guard the guy. He has all the respect in the world for Kobe, I know. And that's how you learn to become a player in this league. And he's done that. He's given us a chance to be able to compete."

Matthews, however, was far from satisfied.

One late play in the particular — the drive — stuck in his craw Monday.

"When he got all the way to the basket for that back-breaking layup — I wish I would have played it a little different," he said. "I wish I wouldn't have crowded him as much. I kind of gave him a straight line, and he took advantage of it. That's what great players do."

And Bryant undeniably is that.

"It's not demoralizing. It hurts when anybody makes a shot. That's what he does. That's why he is who he is," Matthews said. "But, I mean, you've just got to step up to the challenge and make everything difficult for him.

"He's great in the mid-post area. He's very patient. He looks for his cutters, looks for his teammates, tries to get them involved," Matthews added. "But he knows when to attack and when to put the game on his shoulders. I've got to match his intensity and his spark."

If anybody can as a rookie, Jazz teammates have no doubt Matthews would be their pick.

"I don't think he's really played like a rookie all year," Williams said.

Perhaps that's partly because of genes from his father, Wes Matthews, who played for six NBA teams over nine seasons and in Italy, too.

He won two NBA title rings with the Lakers in 1987 and 1988, one of which was given to son Wesley, who was born shortly before that first championship season.

Wes Matthews didn't always play a full-fledged part in Wesley's life, but the relationship is stronger now than previously.

"His ties aren't with the Lakers," said Wesley, a self-professed Lakers and Bulls fan as a kid. "His ties are with me, and that's just family."

Matthews' older-than-his-years ways also largely stem from an upbringing overseen by single-mom Pam Moore, a two-sport University of Wisconsin product, every step of the way.

To wit: The tattoo on Wesley's left bicep reads "Dynamic Duo," accompanied by two sets of initials, his and hers. Mostly, though, Matthews has overcome the odds with a will — and a way — not all NBA rookies have. Ask Miles about guarding Bryant in the playoffs with less than a year of pro experience, and he shakes his head. "I definitely wanted to — but I definitely wasn't ready to do it at the time," he said.

Understandably, as Miles — a second-round pick who is defending Bryant in this series when Matthews is not — jumped to the NBA straight from high school.

Matthews played four years at Marquette, and it shows.

"He's not afraid of anything that comes with the game. And when you think about it, why should he be?" said Miles, also 23. "It's the same game he's been playing since he was a little kid.

"I mean, you say that; it's easier said than done. But he's been in late-game situations, guarding different guys, everything, and he's had some success doing it — because he's as tough as they come."

Heck, even Matthews' humor has a bite.

"He's definitely sarcastic," Miles said. "But as funny as they come."

Honest, too.

Ask Matthews if there's anything he's marveled over this season, any situation that's left him slack-jawed — any chink, essentially, in his armor — he hesitatingly admits to one.

It was earlier this season, and the Jazz were playing the Lakers.

Scoot over, Kobe. This is no dream. "We were in L.A., and I saw (actress) Jessica Alba courtside," Matthews said. "That was a 'Wow.'"

e-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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