Sunday, February 10, 2013

Expanding Your Basketball Horizons (Part 2)

In my “Expanding Your Basketball Horizons” series, I unveil the most talented players outside the bounds of Division I basketball and assess their future prospects at a professional level of play.

In this edition of "Expanding Your Basketball Horizons", I review one of the most talked about prospects outside of Division I in 7'0 Farmingdale St. product AJ Matthews. While his physical gifts and athletic talent really separate him from his peers, Matthews is still very much a raw prospect at this stage of the game.

Hailing from Van Arsdale High School in Brooklyn, Matthews only started playing basketball during his sophomore year. In his three years of high school basketball, Matthews steadily made improvements and inevitably caught the attention of some big name programs. After they realized that he would fail to qualify academically, these top flight programs stopped recruiting him and Matthews eventually wound up at Monroe College. He moved to Broward Community College for his sophomore season and really stood out there. Following his completion of junior college, Matthews did not meet the academic requirements at Fairleigh Dickinson and instead decided to play alongside long time friend and former high school (and JUCO) teammate Ryan Davis at Farmingdale St. Considering his path to Division III basketball and his progression up until now, it is clear that Matthews is far from a finished product despite his fairly advanced age for a college senior.

First and foremost, it is clear that AJ Matthews' physical tools distinguish him from other Division III standouts aspiring to play professional basketball. Standing at a lengthy 7'0 220 lbs, Matthews could stand to add some weight to his frame. While he is not a super quick leaper, AJ is an effortless jumper who can get up to block shots and challenge players at the rim. 

In terms of his offensive repertoire, Matthews is solely an inside weapon at this stage. He scores most of his baskets at the rim or within five feet of the hoop. Matthews is fairly active moving when his teammates have the ball, and is often on the receiving end of easy lay ins off of basket cuts and alley oops out in transition. He especially likes to backcut baseline. In these instances, Matthews finishes with authority and really makes some spectacular plays by any standard. His outstanding combination of both length and leaping ability allow him to catch exceptionally high alley oops and post entry feeds. This provides him with either easy baskets or superior post position inside, and makes it very difficult to contest him without fouling. Even when matched up with a taller player on Purchase College, Matthews was able to leverage his combination of quickness and athleticism to score over his opponent. However, he did tend to struggle at times to obtain positioning against shorter, more physical players, who were occasionally successful in chesting him out of the paint. For the most part, though, he was able to physically overwhelm these opponents by responding with similar physicality. Looking ahead, because of his high center of gravity, he may initially struggle to obtain deep positioning against stronger interior players at a higher level of play. Against such opposition, Matthews must learn to counter by slashing across the paint and beating his opponent to the spot, before flashing and sealing his man.  

With regard to his favorite post moves, Matthews relies predominantly on quick faceup drives, often preferring to attack the rim with a spin move off the dribble. While his handle could stand to be refined a bit, it is currently serviceable enough for straight line drives when he decides to attack the basket. Additionally, Matthews has a fairly quick first step off the dribble and is able to begin  drives further out toward the perimeter. When he does decide to faceup, though, Matthews must have better awareness of his feet when pivoting, as a good percentage of his turnovers come from shifting both feet before putting the ball down on the floor. In terms of the other post moves in his arsenal, Matthews also boasts a deadly running and stationary hook shot, which he can hit with either hand. He is often able to connect on a running lefty hook, and does a nice job of shielding his body from the defender. Matthews is also able to implement his hook shot off of a post entry feed as well. Because he is able to create separation, it is likely that he will be able to get this shot off at a professional level of play. In terms of his weaknesses in the post, due to his high center of gravity, Matthews is not much of a back-to-the-basket option and could stand to add a drop step and counter move to complement his post game. Also, Matthews must work to not put the ball on the floor in traffic. At the Division III level, he is accustomed to receiving anything from double teams to even quadruple teams on some plays. When guards are collapsing down on him, he must learn to have better awareness not to put the ball down on the floor. With that said, Matthews does an excellent job of drawing fouls at this level. He averages 10 free throw attempts per contest and is usually able to draw fouls when attempting to pass out of double teams or when finishing after obtaining deep post positioning inside. Matthews makes 65.8% of his free throw attempts, but could improve significantly on this figure if he bent his knees more on his shot.

Further, Matthews shows some promise as a pick and roll option. He has very quick feet and is able to set screens and dart to the rim for easy entry feeds. Also, he possesses the instincts to slip screens and cut to the hoop when his defender overcommits. Matthews is a handful to contain in this regard, and often finishes these plays with authority. In terms of his intangibles as a screener, Matthews does a nice job of running opponents into his picks, both at the top of the key and in the paint. However, when playing against teams that are good at defending the pick and roll in halfcourt sets, Matthews must learn to become more of a 'pick-and-pop" player, setting himself up for easy jumpers on the wing.

While Matthews has worked on his outside shooting to keep defenses honest, he must continue to refine his stroke. In the contests that I witnessed, Matthews was only able to connect on a handful of the midrange shots that he attempted. He possesses decent lift and balance on his jumpers, but must follow through more on his shots and continue to practice his outside shooting, as it will be an area of emphasis for him at the professional level.

Aside from his offensive repertoire, it is clear that Matthews has a rebounding ability that will translate at a professional level. His dominance on the glass in Division III is rather unprecedented, as he gathers a nation leading 14.2 boards per contest, and actually could be more dominant in this respect given his physical tools. Matthews currently utilizes his length and leaping ability to corral rebounds over smaller players. His wingspan enables him to get a hand on virtually every ball that comes off the rim. And, he does box out to secure rebounds inside. At a higher level of play, he will have to do more than get a hand on his man. Matthews will have to leverage his lower body more often on box outs to sustain rebounding position. When he was matched up with a more physical team, he initially struggled against their gang-rebounding mentality, but later adjusted and was able to physically overwhelm these smaller players. While I would not consider him to be one of the more physically imposing prospects, Matthews plays with a toughness bred by years of playing in the mecca of basketball. Therein, in the contests I have seen when he was physically challenged, Matthews was able to adjust and make an impact on the glass. Moreover, Matthews can stand to improve as an offensive rebounder. Instead of hunting down loose balls, Matthews has a tendency of getting back on defense early. As a result, Matthews gets most of his 4.9 offensive rebounds per game off of his own misses inside. If he were to fight harder for positioning on every play, I would expect an exponential increase in his offensive rebounding numbers. On the defensive glass, Matthews is extremely assertive and is always in position to grab rebounds and pass ahead to create transition opportunities for his teammates. AJ does a nice job of keeping the ball high after he has secured it.

As a facilitator, Matthews often finds himself at the top of the key either moving the ball side-to-side or dishing it inside to an open teammate posting up. He does a fairly good job of feeding his post man on the correct hand and is able to shift the defense when moving the ball along the perimeter. Matthews is a willing passer and is able to hit cutters if they are open. As his awareness and ability to read the defense improves, Matthews will be able to create more opportunities for shooters on the perimeter when the opposition decides to double or even triple team him.

While Matthews has a lot of room for growth on the offensive end, he may be able to make his greatest mark defensively at the next level. First, it should be mentioned that Matthews possesses good lateral quickness and regularly is able to defend on the perimeter when there is a switch off on defense. If he is going to get beat off the dribble, he does a nice job of leading the offensive player he is guarding into the help. When defending out high, he shows a decent defensive stance. Further, Matthews is a very strong shot blocker, and is able to cover a lot of ground in a hurry. He often is able to block perimeter shots on closeouts or make plays on the ball against slashers looking to attack his body. Matthews has good anticipatory instincts and is able to block shots before they are released from a player's hand, which often allows him to recover the ball and create extra possessions for his team. Matthews is able to make helpside "statement" blocks as well. With respect to his statistical productivity on this end, Matthews averages 0.8 steals and 2.8 blocks per contest. Despite this strength, Matthews does have a hard time staying out of foul trouble. He averages 3.3 fouls per contest and is often the first player that the opposing defenses attack. Matthews has learned to become a good positional defender when players get very close to the hoop. He extends his arms straight up and down and this often changes shots or leads to deflections. While he is often able to obtain positioning down low due to his quick feet, it is very rare for Matthews to take a charge. This often forces refs to make the notorious block/charge call, and thereby contributes to Matthews inflated foul total. The rest of Matthews' fouls come on silly plays off the ball, on reach ins when defending the pick and roll, or on offensive fouls brought about by using his arms to establish position on the block.

Still, Matthews thrives as a pick and roll defender at this level, doing an excellent job of hedging out and stopping perimeter players in their tracks. He often is able to turn this play into a trap situation up top. Matthews reads these plays fairly well, and has the quickness to recover to his man and jump in the passing lanes. At a higher level of play, though, it will be interesting to see if he can still trap up high without sacrificing a two-on-one situation in the paint. In terms of his weaknesses, he does not play with consistent effort in help defense situations. While Matthews does recover as a help defender most of the time, he tends to give up easy layups when he does not step in. Also, Matthews must work harder to chest his man out of the paint. Due to his high center of gravity, Matthews must do a better job of utilizing his length to deflect post entry feeds and make the catch more difficult for his opponents. If he is unable to make these adjustments, he may struggle with post defense at a higher level.

Another notable flaw that becomes evident when watching Matthews play is his poor motor at times. AJ is often the last one down the floor on certain plays, and this is usually due to the fact that he starts the possession with the defensive rebound. However, he often fails to hustle down the floor if it seems like a teammate is going to hoist a shot in a one-and-done possession. His poor motor is only really evident on the offensive end, as he always gets back to defend his man inside. Still, professionals play at a much faster pace than his Division III team, so this is a legitimate concern regarding how his game might translate. He should not be the last one down the floor on many offensive possessions, as it ruins his team's rhythm and takes precious time away for them to get into their sets. While this issue is rather alarming at first glance, one must remember that he has not been exposed to professional conditioning and this could improve his activity level significantly. Also, he has shown flashes of a decent motor at times, so his energy level may change against a higher level of competition.

All in all, AJ Matthews is a raw talent with considerable upside who will be able to receive looks at the Portsmouth Invitational. He must continue to improve his outside shot, cut down on turnovers, and work on not giving up deep post position. If he can make some strides in these areas, play with a consistent motor, and add about 20 pounds of muscle, Matthews should have a long professional career after this season. 

Teammate and friend Ryan Davis also deserves a mention here, as he acts as a catalyst to the Farmingdale St. offense. The 5'9 senior guard has excellent handles and is able to control the tempo for his team, settling them down at times and pushing the pace in other instances. He has very good vision and is oftentimes able to thread the needle and set up his teammates for easy buckets inside. His 4.4 assists per game are absolutely pivotal to Farmingdale St.'s offensive success. Davis also plays a fearless brand of basketball and is willing to attack much bigger players inside. Even when he does not finish, he is able to draw defenses away, creating easy offensive rebounding opportunities for his teammates. With these strengths in mind, Davis must play a more controlled brand of offense in transition. He is prone to attempting to score in one-on-two or one-on-three situations when he could easily just wait to run his team's offense. Still, Davis possesses good athleticism and physicality on the defensive end of the floor. He paces his team with two steals per game and his active hands have created numerous additional possessions for the Rams.

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