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Right after the Wizards beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, 128-112, on Feb. 27 for their seventh win in eight games, Garrison Mathews scanned the team’s box score. He was happy the team won, but didn’t like what he saw from his stat line. Even though Mathews scored 18 points and had nine rebounds, he finished with a plus-minus rating of minus-9.
“That kind of pissed me off,” he told reporters after the game. “I was looking at that, like my goodness. There’s always something I’m trying to critique.”
Mathews clarified that he’s not worried about his stats but that his self-criticism and relentless quest to improve means he has yet to slow down and reflect on his impressive journey from undrafted college player out of Lipscomb University in 2019 to a two-way NBA player starting for the Wizards. The 24-year-old guard wants more.
“That’s probably one of my flaws is that a lot of people say to me that it’s OK to sit back and be like, ‘Wow, I’m starting.’ It’s OK to be happy with where I’m at, but my mentality, the way I am, I’m never satisfied,” Mathews said. “I don’t care that I’m starting right now—I mean I do, I’m thankful for that spot. I’m thankful that coach trusts me to put me in there, but now there’s something else I’m pushing for: more wins, more whatever. I’m trying to never to be satisfied, because once I start getting complacent, I’m going backwards.”
Wizards head coach Scott Brooks understands what it’s like to be an undrafted player trying to make it in the NBA. He made a career for himself as a backup point guard, bouncing around the league after going undrafted in 1987.
“I tell guys that are always trying to make it, there’s no such thing as a warmup for you. There’s no such thing as a stretch period for you,” Brooks said. “Right when practice starts, you better be on. If you want to make it, you gotta treat every practice like Game 7, and I believe in that … It’s hard to make it in this league if you’re not drafted, and it’s hard to make it in this league even if you are drafted for many years. It’s hard to make it for 10, 12 years.”
Mathews made a lasting impression on his future coach at his pre-draft workout with the Wizards. The team has a conditioning drill in which NBA prospects run down and back on the court in an attempt to get 26 touches in a certain amount of time. It’s not designed for players to finish, Mathews explained, but to test who would push through.
Only one player got 26 in the time allotted: Mathews.
“He’s a fighter,” Brooks said. “I thought his lungs were going to explode. He was running so hard and you could tell he wanted to slow down, but he was determined. That got my attention right there.”
“He has the toughness, he has the fight, and he has the skill set,” the coach continued. “And to me the best skill set he has is the play hard skills. I don’t coach effort, but when you got that skill, that is a talent that nobody wants to … talk about the analytics on play-hard. I don’t know what you can do but there’s a play-hard analytic and Garrison is the poster boy for that.”
The Wizards signed Mathews to a two-way contract, in which players split time between the Wizards and their NBA G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, after the 2019 NBA Draft. He received more playing time than expected with the Wizards that December after several players went down with injuries, and showcased his shooting skills, including a 28-point outburst in a win over the Miami Heat on Dec. 30, 2019. Mathews finished his rookie season averaging 5.4 points and shot 41.3 percent from the three-point range.
Still, the guard didn’t receive much attention from other teams during the offseason and decided to retain his two-way contract with the Wizards. As part of the deal, Mathews can play in up to 50 of the team’s 72 games, unless the team decides to promote him to a standard NBA contract.
Last month, in efforts to find a winning formula, Brooks inserted Mathews as a starting small forward on Feb. 12., and Mathews has since started all 10 games ahead of first round draft picks Troy Brown Jr. and Jerome Robinson, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers before being traded to Washington. During that span, the Wizards have gone 7-3.
Mathews told reporters that he knows he has a “short leash” because of his contract and that he doesn’t care if he scores 20 points or zero points, as long as the team wins. As an undrafted player, he added that he’s felt like he’s had more to prove, and he does that by playing whatever role the Wizards need for them to win.
“He’s just a young man that takes advantage of his opportunities,” Wizards all-star Bradley Beal said. “That’s all the NBA is. The lifespan of the league is three years, so you have to take every single opportunity you have and hold on to it like it’s your last, and that’s all G is doing.”
Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.