With all the Trail Blazers news rolling in lately, it has been a little while since I’ve offered you my own extended opinion on current matters. So today I’m exploring the dramatic ascension of Wesley Matthews, why I believe he has improved so much, and just how well he’s actually been playing—by the numbers and otherwise. Basketball is a science, so please take a page from the book of Nye and consider the following:
Six months ago, popular opinion was that Wesley Matthews would make a phenomenal sixth man. Not a knock at Matthews, by any means, though the Trail Blazers team had evolved into a three-headed beast that left him wagging at the tail-end of notoriety. It came as no surprise, then, when Portland targeted CJ McCollum—a highly acclaimed scorer out of Lehigh, with the 10th overall pick of the 2013 NBA draft (but you already knew that).
Unless you’re expecting to win a championship with your current starters like the Detroit Pistons were (and did) when they drafted Darko Milicic in 2003, you don’t plan to keep a top 10 pick on the bench for long. I think Matthews knew that McCollum (a combo-guard) would not supplant Lillard as the starting point guard. Shooting guard would be a better fit for the rookie in the long run. Unfortunately, this path was road blocked when McCollum re-broke his left foot on October 5th.
Now, I doubt Wesley Matthews threw his head back in maniacal laughter, yelling “MUAHAHAHA! The bell tolls for thee, my dear McCollum!” On the contrary, he was probably just as upset as the rest of us were. However, when you work as hard to succeed as Matthews does, you don’t waste opportunities. McCollum’s absence has given Matthews an unshared stage on which to demonstrate his value to the Trail Blazers, not only as a starter, but as a core player.
His improvements have been noticeable on the court as well as the stat-sheet (which we’ll get to in a minute). I’m going to go out on a sturdy limb and say Matthews is Portland’s best pound-for-pound defender. His formerly sub-par lateral quickness is now an asset instead of a liability, making him nearly impossible to shake. Not to mention improved ball-handling on the opposite side of the court. Stumbling and bumbling into predictable turnovers is much less of a concern when he drives to the hoop than it used to be.
As for the statistics, Wesley Matthews leads the entire league in both effective field goal percentage (67.8%) and true shooting percentage (69.6%). This is because he is rocking an astonishing 51.0% from three (higher than any player with 100 or more attempts) to go with an almost as astonishing 58.5% conversion rate on 2-point field goals. He also ranks 10th in the NBA for overall field goal percentage (54.6%). Let’s put that in perspective.
1. Andre Drummond (65.2%)
2. LeBron James (59.9%)
3. DeAndre Jordan (59.5%)
4. Tiago Splitter (59.4%)
5. Boris Diaw (57.0%)
6. Dwight Howard (56.7%)
7. Brook Lopez (55.6%)
8. Marcin Gortat (55.4%)
9. Al Horford (55.2%)
10. Wesley Matthews (54.6%)
Notice anything? Wesley Matthews is the only guard on that list. He has seven centers, one power forward, and LeBron James for company. Funny how field goal percentage tends to climb with player height and proximity to the basket. Matthews’ bread and butter is about 20 feet further away from the hoop than most of these players. In the first 18 games of the season (a noteworthy sample size) he has been the most efficient scorer in the NBA.
Now the fun part. We’ve had a good look at how he stacks up against the competition, but how about how he looks in the mirror (besides slimmer)? Matthews is averaging a career high in points per game (16.6) on the fewest number of field goal attempts per game since his rookie season in Utah. A career high 4.4 rebounds per game doesn’t hurt either. He’s better than the player he was six months ago, who was no slouch to begin with.
That’s why he was left off of the all-star ballot. The player he was six months ago was not all-star worthy and enough season had not passed to prove his newfound success anything more than a fluke at the time the ballot was announced. That being said, I think much of the media sensationalized his resentment about being excluded. Matthews will find motivation where he can, as any gifted player will do, but, as far as I can tell, he’s not out for blood.
There are valid questions regarding sustainability. I don’t think he will shoot at this otherworldly clip for an entire season, but I don’t think he’ll entirely return to Earth either. He will probably settle into an impressive groove somewhere below his current production, yet still above his previous bests. No matter how you slice it, Matthews is an early frontrunner for the 2013-2014 Most Improved Player in the NBA. The most interesting (and welcome) monkey wrench will be the return of CJ McCollum. Will we see the same Wesley Matthews in the same doses another six months from now?
 Effective Field Goal Percentage; the formula is (FG + 0.5 * 3P) / FGA. This statistic adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal. For example, suppose Player A goes 4 for 10 with 2 threes, while Player B goes 5 for 10 with 0 threes. Each player would have 10 points from field goals, and thus would have the same effective field goal percentage (50%).
 True Shooting Percentage; the formula is PTS / (2 * TSA). True shooting percentage is a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws.