Few things are stable within the Portland Trail Blazers organization these days. Around half of the roster is about to hit free agency; the head coach is still working on an “interim” basis; there’s a brand new general manager; and the roster’s biggest name—LaMarcus Aldridge—is rehabbing an injured hip this summer. All of this is before the Draft—in which PDX holds two Lottery picks, at six and 11—and the subsequent off-season maneuvering kicks off Thursday night. But if you are looking for some stability, you could do a lot worse than Blazers swingman Wesley Matthews. The Madison, WI, native is fully healthy, and he’s already mapped out a summer of on-court improvement, with a tiny bit of rest and some charity events mixed in as well. While in New York City for May’s NBA Lottery, Matthews swung by the SLAM Dome to talk about his plans for the next few months and plenty more.
SLAM: You represented the Trail Blazers at the Lottery. How’d that go?
Wesley Matthews: It went well. Any time you get two first-round picks in a pretty loaded Draft, it’s a good thing. We’ll take it.
SLAM: It was the first time you were there, right?
WM: Yeah. Hopefully it was the last time. I don’t ever want to be there again.
SLAM: But was it a fun experience, at least?
WM: Yeah, it was cool to be a part of the NBA Draft. I wasn’t drafted back in 2009, so to come back full circle and be a part of it, it’s pretty cool.
SLAM: It’s kind of ironic that you’re the one representing a team at a Draft lottery—
WM: And I wasn’t drafted. Yeah.
SLAM: That’s kinda cool.
WM: Yeah. That’s how I looked at it. You come full circle, not being drafted, and now you’re representing your team for future draft picks. But again, we never want to be in that position again.
SLAM: Soon there’s going to be a lot of kids who go undrafted and are right where you were a few years ago. What would tell them?
WM: Just believe in yourself. Throughout the workouts, going up against players that I knew were gonna get drafted, or talked about getting drafted, and competing and holding my own and beating [those guys]—that right there showed me that I can play. I knew I could be at this level and I knew I belonged at that level.
SLAM: What was the best advice that you got at that point, and who gave it to you?
WM: Um… everybody. My agent, he told me to just do me. A lot of guys go in and someone says, “You need to work on your shooting,” so they’ll just do shooting just to show that they can do it, whereas you should do what got you to where you’re at.
SLAM: What have you been up to since the season ended?
WM: I actually took three weeks off.
SLAM: Right, there’s gotta be some time where you just let your body recharge.
WM: Yeah, I’m not very good at that though. But I took three weeks off, which was good for me. Now I’m slowly easing back into it, doing a lot of shooting and ball-handling. But the time when I wasn’t working out I was watching film, watching the Playoffs. Didn’t want to, but… [trails off].
SLAM: What about for the rest of the summer?
WM: Doing workouts. Doing a Nike camp in China.
SLAM: I also heard you were doing some kind of biking charity event.
WM: Yeah, I’m doing it with the Boys & Girls club back home in Madison. I’m biking 25 miles in the middle of July.
SLAM: Do you bike regularly?
WM: No, [but] I know how to bike.
SLAM: And you think you can just bike 25 miles?
WM: Well I’m gonna do it. People don’t think I can, so now I’m gonna do it.
SLAM: Yeah, honestly, I’m not so sure you can. At the least, I think it’s gonna be harder than you think.
WM: I don’t know what to think. I’m not thinking it’s gonna be casual. I’m gonna go at my pace—I’m not trying to beat anybody [laughs].
SLAM: Any vacations this summer?
WM: Nah. I don’t do vacations.
SLAM: When you were watching film, what jumped out at you, as far as what you have to work on?
WM: I think I just have to utilize all my tools more. I don’t think there’s a part of the game that I can’t do, and of course you want to improve on everything, but watching the film really helps because you can see when to do it. Such a big part of being good—and great—is recognizing the situation, A, and then B, having the tools to do what you need to do in the situation. So I think I have the tools, I just need to get better at recognizing when to use them.
SLAM: Are you a stats guy? Do you study box scores or anything like that?
WM: I look at rebounds, assists, steals and turnovers. I know what I shoot—I know if I shoot it well—but I look at the other things because the rebounds, the assists, the steals, those are the things that get me going. I’d rather get a defensive rebound and push it, [because] that’s gonna engage me in the game, or get a steal and push it on the break. And of course you look at turnovers, because you don’t want to be turning the ball over.
WM: Well we’ve got six players [under contract], no GM (Since this conversation, Portland has hired Neil Oshley for the role.—Ed.), no coach—you know, I’m hoping we keep our coach right now. I’m hoping we keep Kaleb [Canales]. Two of the players returning are recovering; LA with the surgery and Elliot [Williams] had a separated shoulder. So there’s four of us that are able to play. Kurt [Thomas] is ancient, so he ain’t doing much [laughs].
SLAM: It must be cool to have a guy on the team like that, though.
WM: Oh, Kurt was a great addition. He’s one of those glue guys—he keeps everything in perspective. He’s seen everything, and when his name’s called he’s ready. He’s gonna take a charge; he’s gonna get a rebound; he’s going to protect the paint; he’s going to take a hard foul; makes his 15-17 foot jumper; sets great screens. He’s gonna get it done.
SLAM: As one of the few guys under contract for next season, now that the organization has half of a roster to fill, do you pick up the phone and lobby to get some guys to come to PDX?
WM: I’m sure [the Trail Blazers organization] will have me reach out to some people. I don’t know who they’re thinking about. My focus is, how can I get better to help this team? How can I get better to make sure we’re having this conversation in late June, rather than [during the Playoffs]?
SLAM: Do you have a mentor anywhere in the organization?
WM: Coach Kaleb, the interim head coach, but that didn’t really change our relationship. Hersey Hawkins, I would call him at like 10:30 at night and be like, Yo, I’m picking you up, we’re going to the practice facility. He’s like, “You serious?” and I’m like, Yeah, I’ll be at your house in seven minutes.
SLAM: : What was the relationship like with you and Kaleb?
WM: It’s cool. He was the second person I met when I came to work out for Portland [before the ’09 Draft], and I just remember him being excited about the opportunity that he had—and that was as the film/video guy, and he was working people out. That was the first thing I noticed about him—that he truly loves what he’s doing. He made me feel like I was a Trail Blazer then. I was like, I’m coming here! When I was in Utah and we were playing Portland, he remembered who I was; we spoke, and he still had that same excitement, same enthusiasm. Then when I signed with Portland that was the first person I thought about. Like, He’s still here, cool.
SLAM: He was an assistant at that point?
WM: Honestly I don’t remember what his title was. He was a video guy/assistant—it was weird. He did whatever he needed to do. So as soon as I got there me and him linked up, just going at it in the gym, film, talking about frustrations I had, talking about ideas that I had, and really learned a lot from him. I think he learned a lot from me, and our relationship’s really taken off.
SLAM: Did you notice his demeanor change after he became head coach?
WM: Hasn’t changed at all. I remember when he got the job, we were in Chicago playing the Bulls, and he always worked me out before warmups. So I’m talking to Hawk and I’m like, You got me during the warmup, and [Hawkins] was like, “Cool.” And so I’m out there, I got out a little bit late, and K is already out there, like, “What took you so long?” I’m like, What are you doing here? He’s like, “We got our routine!” So from then on he was warming me up.
SLAM: So you formally endorse him coming on as permanent head coach? Is there someone you can call to give the recommendation?
WM: I told everybody that I could in the organization that myself and the rest of the team really like Coach Kaleb at the head coach position. It’s a good story and I think we’ve got something special with him. I can kind of relate to the position he’s been in, and he hit the ground running. There were times in huddles when he’d draw up a play, and then [snaps], execute it.
SLAM: He obviously has the Xs and Os stuff down, but the one obstacle would be learning how to manage with the different personalities.
WM: It helps because he’s had that relationship with almost everybody on the team, so the biggest hurdle to overcome was how do you separate us as friends, and now you’re the head coach. And I think he did a good job of that.
SLAM: Does he separate being friends with you guys and being your head coach?
WM: During the game and during practice he did. But, you know, getting on to the bus, getting off the bus, right before practice starts, he’s the same old Kaleb. Then all of a sudden it switches, and then it’s time to go to work.
SLAM: When you guys started struggling this year, nobody ever said it was because of lack of talent. Why do you think things went downhill?
WM: I wish I could put my finger on it, because then we wouldn’t have been in that position. It was weird. I don’t think anybody really understood what was going on, why it was going on. We started off so well to begin the season, and it just felt like that was the kind of season we were gonna have. It’s tough in the NBA—you string a couple losses, then you hang your head for a second, and that momentum… it just so happens that other teams were getting hot, so when we were going this way, other teams we going [the other way]. We tried to gain some momentum, and it was like, win one, lose a heart breaker that we thought we should’ve won, and then we couldn’t recover and we’d play a hot team.
SLAM: It had to have been an important experience for you, right? Now you know what that situation is like if you’re with a team that’s headed the wrong way.
WM: Yeah, and it’s never good to not be in the postseason, but a lot of us have only known success. When I was in college those four years, I never thought about not making the NCAA Tournament. In actuality that happens to a lot of teams—they don’t make the NCAA Tournament. But in my mind, it was like, OK, we’re going to the NCAA Tournament. In the NBA, I never thought about not playing the Playoffs. My first year, [the Jazz] made it to the second round. I come to Portland, we’re in the Playoffs. You get comfortable. So I think that might’ve happened. We just felt, OK, we’re better than this, we can turn it around, and then, damn. We’re done in May. Watching.
SLAM: Do you watch the Playoffs with some kind of resentment, or anger—anything like that?
WM: I’ve got a lot of anger in me [laughs]. So yeah. I’m watching Playoffs now more to learn. Just watching what other people are doing, how I could get better, [how I could] insert myself in other positions and seeing how people are being effective, how they’re getting what they need to, and knowing that I could do that.
SLAM: You’ve seen two unfortunate injury-related situations unfold in Portland—Greg Oden’s struggle to stay on the court, and then Brandon Roy’s early retirement. What did you get out of seeing all of that up close?
WM: Just thanking God, knowing that we’re blessed to be in this position and however long we get to play this game, to not take it for granted, because you never know when it’s gonna be gone for you. It’s sad for those guys that it’s gone before—well, Greg, we don’t really know. Even BRoy, I heard BRoy is trying to make a comeback. But for them to not be at their maximum because of injuries, something that they couldn’t even control, it’s sad. So it makes you appreciate it more. It’s not a long window, nor is anything guaranteed.
SLAM: Have you spoken to either of those guys recently?
WM: Yeah. Greg changes his number all the time [laughs], so I gotta get it from somebody. BRoy, I talked to him a couple times during the season. I gotta hit him up to see if these rumors are true.
SLAM: You guys have the pick sixth and 11th in this year’s Draft. Do you have a few names in your mind of potential rookies you’d love to see on the roster next season?
WM: I don’t really look at it like that. I just want winners. I want guys that are accustomed to winning, used to winning, and don’t know what to do if they’re not winning. Winners and competitors—that’s the type of culture that we have, and want to continue to build, and want to get back to even more. Going at it in practice and transferring that over to the game.