by Brendan Bowers / @BowersCLE
NBA League Pass wasn’t invented when Matthew Dellavedova was growing up in Australia. They weren’t broadcasting games on local television, either. But even though he wouldn’t watch live NBA action until high school, Dellavedova always knew where he wanted to go.
“Like most people around my age, my first memories of the NBA were of Michael Jordan,” the 23-year-old Dellavedova told SLAM. “But for me, mine were from watching Jordan and the Bulls on those championship videos you’d get at the local video store. It was before the NBA was on TV in Australia, but I remember first watching those highlight videos.”
Shortly after, NBA dreams quickly morphed into goals for the Maryborough, Victoria native. They were goals he planned to accomplish, regardless of how feasible the idea may have seemed to the outside world.
“Playing in the NBA was always one of my goals,” Dellavedova said. “I’m not sure when it became a realistic goal, but it was always one of my goals. Since I was about 14 all I wanted to do was play in college, play for Australia and play in the NBA. Those were my goals.”
Dellavedova followed San Antonio Spurs guard and fellow Australian Patty Mills to the Australian Institute of Sport for high school. Around that same time, Andrew Bogut would be drafted first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks and NBA games began popping up on local television with regularity.
“I was aware of what Luc Longley accomplished growing up as a kid with those Bulls teams,” Dellavedova recalled. “His success was huge for Australian basketball. But I didn’t have a favorite player or favorite team until I started following the games regularly in high school—and my favorite player was Steve Nash. I was getting games on TV and Nash was going through that golden period of his career. That was obviously fun to watch and I learned a lot from watching him.”
What Dellavedova learned helped him follow Mills to St. Mary’s College of California, earning a scholarship in the same West Coast Conference as Nash’s alma mater. The next stop from there for the Olympian and point guard they called Delly was the League.
Matthew Dellavedova made his NBA debut for the Cleveland Cavaliers on November 2 against the Indiana Pacers. He played one minute. It wasn’t until November 16 that Dellavedova would see extended action. Coach Mike Brown would trust Dellavedova’s ability to impact the game with hustle, passion and intensity for 31 minutes that night. Along the way, he’d help Kyrie Irving and the Cavs secure a road victory over John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards.
“I obviously didn’t go into the game thinking I’m about to get 30 minutes,” Dellavedova recalled with a laugh. “But you’re always just trying to stay ready. Anything can happen in the NBA. When I came in during the second quarter, I set a couple of screens that got a couple of guys open. I played some decent defense and we went on a little bit of a run, took some momentum into halftime.”
It would go on to become a breakout game of sorts for the rookie, who finished with 2 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists. But despite the lack of eye-popping statistics, his overall effort and impact defensively inspired Irving to credit Dellavedova specifically for the win—offering the 41 points he scored as a mere footnote.
“In the third quarter, Coach Brown threw me in there pretty quick and I was mostly guarding Beal, chasing him around screens,” Delly added. “I was doing an OK job so he pretty much left me in there for the rest of the game. I think it was probably about four minutes to go in the fourth when I thought, He’s probably going to leave me out here for the last bit since I’d be playing for so long. So it was a good experience to be able to play in a close game like that and help the team get a road win.”
Just over one week before that road win in Washington, Dellavedova posted a video on his Instagram account. He was running up the Rocky steps in Philadelphia. The Rocky theme song was playing in the background. Upon reaching the top, the Cavaliers guard offered a flurry of haymakers. The music continued to blare.
“I don’t know about that,” he replied with a laugh, when I asked if that run helped prepare him for those extended minutes. “That was a cool thing to do in Philly though. I’ve watched all the Rocky movies and really like them. So it was cool to get out there and pretend you’re in the movie, you know? It was good fun, my family and friends back home got a kick out of it.”
Despite emerging to average 13.9 minutes per game this season—good for 16th among all rookies through Sunday—it hasn’t been all fun for Dellavedova and the Cavs. Prior to winning five of their last seven games to improve to 9-14, Cleveland stumbled hard out the gate. Along the way, however, Delly has been earning the confidence of his head coach.
Following a loss on November 20, Brown singled Dellavedova out in his post-game comments as being the only member of the Cavaliers who competed that night.
“He wants me to practice hard and push Kyrie, Jack and Dion in practice by defending those guys and playing hard,” Dellavedova said of the role Brown is defining for him on the Cavaliers this season. “So I’m just trying to bring energy everyday, just try to make everyone else better. I’m running the point in practice mostly, so I’m trying to get everyone setup and get them into a flow and in the right spots. He also wants me to keep working on my three-point shot and then stay ready. He could throw me in whenever.”
Besides chasing down opposing guards and making fundamentally sound hustle plays all over the court, Dellavedova has demonstrated progress on the three-point shot his coach has asked him to improve. Through Monday, he leads all rookies in three-point percentage at 45.5 percent in 16 appearances.
But Delly has no interest in celebrating the idea of being an undrafted rookie free agent from a mid-major school who is earning minutes in a league nobody thought he could play in. Nor does he have time—at least right now—to formally accept teammate CJ Miles’ Twitter nomination for president, either.
“I haven’t really stepped back and thought about any of that,” he said, when I asked him about the NBA accomplishments he’s made thus far. “I probably won’t until after the season, or I might not think about that at all. I’m not sure when. Obviously, the schedule is so busy with practice, getting shots up, weights, so you hardly think about it. It’s just one day at a time, what is the schedule tomorrow. I’m just trying to focus on getting a little better each day, and by the end of the season that’s going to add up to a lot.”
Dellavedova ended his career at St. Mary’s University as the school’s all-time leader in career points. He is also the school’s all-time leader in assists, three-pointers made, free throw percentage, starts and games played.
He thought his accomplishments could be enough help his name come off the board on draft night. Despite that belief, however, he was passed over by all 30 teams. Twice.
“I thought I had good draft workouts,” he recalled. “I was getting some pretty good feedback but it didn’t turn out on draft night. I’m pretty motivated anyway, but that was some extra fuel to the fire.”
That extra fuel may have helped teammates like Anderson Varejao compare Dellavedova’s playing style to that of a pit bull recently. Or, maybe the smile he plays with has disguised a pit bull-mentality all along.
“Coming into Summer League, I had a good opportunity with the Cavs and I was basically just trying to help us win as many games as we could in Summer League. As a point guard, to make the roster, you need to be a role player on the team and show you can do the little things; playing hard, talking, being a good teammate.”
Dellavedova wasn’t supposed to be quick enough to stay in front of opposing point guards defensively at this level. Despite that, he’s guarded Kyrie Irving well enough on a daily basis to earn the All-Star’s respect and praise.
“You can’t help but get better by going against him everyday.” Dellavedova said of Irving. “Most people have a move, counter-move, and then maybe one more counter-move. But he can just keep making moves. He changes direction at top speed, and that’s not like anything I’ve seen before. You just have to try and keep him in front of you, but that’s obviously really tough.”
By working to keep Irving in front as much as possible, other matchups seem less daunting by comparison when he enters the game.
“He’s been a great teammate,” Delly added. “With his handle, quickness, speed and body control, he can get anywhere he wants on the floor. And then he can finish at the rim, he’s got floaters, pull-ups and he can shoot the three. So it’s obviously a tough cover.”
Dellavedova first learned of the League he’s now playing in through highlight tapes rented from the local video store. Now, those hoping to follow a similar path can learn directly from Delly himself.
Every week, at the Bendigo Advertiser in Australia, Dellavedova is writing a blog describing his NBA experience for those back home.
“It’s good for me to keep track of what I’ve been doing from week to week,” he said. “My parents have been saying that people from back home have been giving some good feedback on it. It’s been good to just write some things down and give people back home an idea of what’s going on.”
What’s going on is that a guy who spent his life believing he could compete at the highest level is doing specifically that. And the NBA chapter he intends to write has only just begun.