LEXINGTON - Let’s start here: Charles Matthews was not some formless lump of clay when John Calipari signed him. The 6-foot-6 swingman from Chicago was a top 100 recruit. He would’ve been the best prospect most programs landed in 2015. But Kentucky is not most programs.
Because Calipari mainly deals in works of art that need just a few finishing touches before taking their place in his gallery of NBA draft picks, sometimes impressive pieces like Matthews get overlooked.
While Scout.com ranked Matthews the 80th prospect in the country, fellow UK signees Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries ranked No. 1, 12, 13 and 51, respectively. Matthews might’ve been the first player in his class to choose the Cats, but by the time a few projected lottery picks jumped on board, he was the last guy anyone was talking about.
He “definitely” felt like the forgotten man among his peers, “but I can’t control how someone else feels about me,” Matthews said. “They’ll figure it out.”
After a summer of workouts and pickup games, his teammates get it. After Sunday night’s combine for NBA scouts, analysts and pro evaluators are coming around, too. Matthews plays hard at all times, defends like his playing time with the Wildcats depends on it (because it does) and jumps out of the gym.
Sharing the stage with those elite freshmen, as well as veteran NBA hopefuls Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee, Matthews shined Sunday, starting with his 41½-inch vertical leap. ESPN’s Seth Greenberg declared afterward that he will “be a big part of what they do,” while one scout said Matthews and Labissiere (potentially the No. 1 pick in 2016) were the Cats who “jumped out.”
“They were surprised by Charles, because everybody has kind of said Charles was an afterthought. When they watched him, they’re like, ‘Wow,’ ” Calipari said. “People didn’t realize how good he was – and especially playing with Tyler, because when I fell in love with him is when he was playing with Tyler. That’s when I said, ‘We gotta get this guy.’ ”
Matthews, who scored 30-plus points five times as a high school senior, played with Ulis on the Chicago-based MeanStreets AAU team. A year older, Ulis was thrilled when Matthews decided to join him at Kentucky, and he isn’t surprised the underrated rookie is already turning heads.
“I said he was going to do that. I knew who he was as a player. He’s coming out there finishing, dunking on people, defending his position – any position, honestly,” Ulis said. “He shoots the ball a lot better than he did back then. He’s more confident.
“A lot of people don’t know his game much. They look past him. I feel like he’s going to surprise some people.”
While Matthews is driven by the perception that he’s not a top talent – Calipari said he’s a first-in, last-out gym rat whose lead other Cats will “follow all year” – he does not resent his more-famous teammates. He’s at Kentucky, not one of those other schools where he’d have been a celebrated signee, because he wanted to be pushed by the best.
“I knew what I had to go through,” Matthews said. “This was my choice to pursue this obstacle. Even though Coach told me this was going to be difficult – it’s not going to be easy at all – I felt this was the right place for me, and I think it’s panning out pretty well so far.
“I try to stay humble and continue to work hard and just be thankful for each and everything I get.”