Lakers’ Wes Matthews enjoys breakthrough night as he adapts to bench role
LeBron James said it best this fall: “What I’ve learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don’t give a damn what you’ve done before … until you become a Laker, you’ve got to do it with them, as well.”
In that sense, the 1,663 3-point baskets Wesley Matthews has made in his career mattered little to the fans of his new team before the six he hit in a row on Wednesday night. But Lakers fans should remember: The fact that Matthews has hit as many as 10 3-pointers in a game in his career matters to him. When he started the season a shooting slump, the 34-year-old’s experience was what kept his confidence burning.
“I feel like I can get hot,” he said. “I feel like I should make every shot that I shoot, so I won’t say it’s unusual.”
It took five games and an 0-for-8 start, but Matthews finally delivered in a win against the San Antonio Spurs. The learning curve has been steep for everyone with a shortened preseason, and by comparison to his teammates who have already turned in good games, Matthews seemed to face the steepest one, not finding his shot on offense and looking slow-footed on defense where he was expected to be one of the surest pieces.
But in his 18-point performance, Matthews showed a little more of what the Lakers expected when they signed him this offseason – and maybe a few things they didn’t. Matthews was the hottest shooter on the floor at times on Wednesday night, including shot-fake stepback jumpers that zipped through the net.
“We don’t worry about Wes: We know what he’s done throughout his career,” Coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s a knockdown shooter and a great defender. Just excited that he’s in a Lakers uniform and what kind of things he’s gonna give us throughout the year.”
What contributed to the slow start? Consider Matthews’ new role: In a career that spans 796 games, Matthews has started 729 of them. In the past eight seasons, he’s only come off the bench twice, and now he’s averaging eight fewer minutes per game than even last season while coming off the bench every game.
It’s hard to explain just how significant starting is to NBA players, especially those who have started before, but that desire to start has already had a profound impact on the Lakers this season. Dennis Schröder voiced how he wanted to move “forward” by returning to the starting lineup after two seasons off the bench in Oklahoma City. Kyle Kuzma has talked before about how he would be a starter on most other teams in the league, and even though the Lakers envision him as a sixth man, he’ll also be elevated into starting whenever James or Anthony Davis miss games.
The wing balance between Schröder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as well as the desire to start a true center bumped Matthews from the role he’s had for most of his 12 seasons in the NBA. And as genial as Matthews is, he acknowledged it’s been a tough adjustment.
“It’s just a different kind of way to get yourself mentally psyched, different kind of way to get engaged into the game. And obviously this is a new group, a new style of play, and just an odd season, just an odd offseason. So nothing was really able to be any kind of resemblance of normal.”
What’s helped, Matthews said, is support. He’s picked up tips from Markieff Morris, a former NBA starter who has transitioned comfortably to his bench role with the Lakers. Whereas starters get their energy from being on the court from the opening tip-off, reserves have to self-generate the same level of intensity and focus, which can be a tricky thing while watching from the bench.
“‘Kieff is one of the guys who has really been, I would say, instrumental in my comfort,” Matthews said. “I started to take a little bit of what he does to try to get ready when my number is called to try to check in the game, which is something that’s different for me. But like I said, you gotta be able to adapt.”
As a chemistry piece, Matthews has already adapted quickly. Schröder said he has been one of the players who helped build chemistry among the newcomers, along with center Marc Gasol.
It makes sense that a veteran with Matthews’ experience would be able to find his fit in the locker room. The Lakers hope they’re seeing just the start of Matthews finding his fit on the court as well.
“We can’t control that the ball goes in the basket and we’ve told him, keep shooting it,” Schröder said. “And that’s what’s so great about this group. Everybody tries to build each other up. … Everybody in this locker room is excited for him and we can’t wait for him to get it going.”