- Farmingdale State 7-footer AJ Matthews is drawing NBA interest -
By ZACH BRAZILLER (Posted: 1:20 AM, December 16, 2012)
Basketball has taken AJ Matthews on a circuitous journey, from Brooklyn to Harrisburg, Pa.; Tallahassee, Fla., to New Rochelle; and Broward, Fla., to Farmingdale, L.I.
The late-blooming 7-footer from Bushwick could be holding the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket in his large meat-cleaver hands — the ability to jump from Division III to the NBA.
"It's a one-in-a-million story," said Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg "Shoes" Vetrone, who landed Matthews before academic woes sent him and good friend Ryan Davis to Farmingdale State. "You're talking about a kid who is on the NBA radar [who] basically never played high school basketball."
The odds are long. Just four players have gone this route, getting drafted from a Division III school — Devean George from Augsburg College (Minn.) in 1999 was the most recent — according to Rob Reheuser, who overseas the NBA Draft Guide.
Long, athletic and with the movement of a wing, Matthews didn't start playing basketball until his junior year of high school, and he only recently stopped growing to his current height of 7-foot-1.
Matthews is on several teams' radar — the Knicks, Wizards, Magic, Pacers, Bulls, Lakers and Bobcats have been to Farmingdale — and his chances of landing in the league will depend on how he performs following his senior year, NBA director of scouting Ryan Blake said.
Blake, who has been to Farmingdale to see Matthews, said he is "high on my list" of players to invite to the Portsmouth Invitational, which features the nation's top seniors. Matthews is intriguing, Blake said, because of his size, length, athleticism and body type that reminds him of Kevin Garnett.
"He's 7-foot, breathing and athletic — yes, he has a shot," Blake said. "He does a lot of things that are intriguing."
Basketball didn't appeal to Matthews as a youngster. In his free time, he ran around his Bushwick neighborhood playing tag. After enough pestering from Harry Van Arsdale coach Ron Peters, Matthews — who had grown to 6-foot-7 by his junior year — gave hoops a shot.
"I said, 'Let me try. I must be able to do something he sees,'" Matthews recalled.
Matthews, 23, had a productive two-year career at Van Arsdale, averaging 25 points and 22 rebounds per game his senior year. His career began in earnest the spring of his junior year, when he met the Davises, Ryan and his father Chuck, in an AAU tournament at Island Garden on Long Island.
Matthews and Ryan Davis became fast friends, playing together on the AAU circuit with Team Odom. Chuck Davis, a gruff workout nut and former construction worker — described by Vetrone as "crazy. He's a guy you want in a foxhole with you" — became Matthews' trainer.
To Matthews, Ryan Davis was the greatest player he ever had seen, a chiseled 5-foot-10 point guard with endless range on his jumpshot and kept the ball on a string like a yo-yo. Matthews figured Ryan got it from his dad, so he opened himself to all of Chuck's wisdom.
Matthews followed Ryan, who failed to qualify academically out of Bayside, to prep school powerhouse American Christian in Harrisburg, Pa., and credited Chuck with instilling a relentless work ethic in him. The three would spend hours upon hours together in the gym — working on skill work, lifting weights and running wind sprints.
"You don't know how many times my arms were tired, my chest was burning, I was hungry, I was thirsty and Ryan would say, 'My dad's not going to let you stop. Chuck's not going to let you stop,'" Matthews recalled. "Chuck would say, 'Don't stop, don't quit, don't ever let go.'
"I had a lot of guys tell me [I could be good], but a lot of guys told you and didn't explain the process of being good. ... Every little thing you can know about basketball, he taught me about."
Those close to Matthews rave about his humble temperament, even as he is on the cusp of stardom. All three of his junior college coaches described him as a pleasure to be around.
Before a recent home game against Purchase, he created flyers for the contest and personally handed them out. When he was at junior college at Broward College, coach Bob Starkman had his son in law, an Army vet recently back home after fighting in Afghanistan, meet with the team. Matthews spent extra time talking to him about his experiences overseas.
Vetrone remembers attending a Broward game shortly after Matthews committed to FDU alongside coaches from Oklahoma and Cincinnati. Matthews said he wouldn't talk to them if Vutrone didn't want him to. When Vetrone told him it was up to him, Matthews said he would thank them for coming to see him, but he already committed to FDU, and wasn't going to go back on his word.
"If he wasn't a basketball player, he could be a politician," Vetrone said. "People just gravitate to him."
Chuck Davis wanted Matthews to attend Broward after American Christian with Ryan, but he went another direction, first to Tallahassee Community College then Monroe, and lost contact with the Davises for a year.
He felt alone at Monroe, despite enjoying a solid freshman season, and wanted to rejoin Ryan and resume his never-ending workout sessions with Chuck. He enrolled at Broward and was exceptional teaming with Ryan. The two committed to FDU, but academic woes derailed them from the Division I level. They instead found their way to Farmingdale, where Matthews has transformed the program.
The Rams won the Skyline Conference last year and reached the second round of the Division III NCAA Tournament, as Matthews earned D-III All-American honors from the National Association of Basketball coaches' after averaging 22.4 points and 16.3 rebounds per game. Farmingdale is off to a 5-3 start this season, and Matthews' numbers have remained impressive: 25 points and 16 rebounds per game. Attendance at home games has skyrocketed, and NBA scouts frequent the tiny Long Island school.
"The excitement he's brought to the program and the campus, you can't measure it," Farmingdale coach Erik Smiles said.
Farmingdale has been good to Matthews as well. He has improved academically, with a 2.3 average, and is set to graduate.
Matthews' future is as unpredictable as his wayward college journey. He is putting up monster numbers, yet the level of competition is inferior — 6-foot-5 centers who can't even see over him, making his production "tough to judge," Blake said.
Those close to him have points of comparison. Chuck Smith vividly remembers him dominating current NBA forwards DeMarcus Cousins and Samardo Samuels on the AAU circuit. Vetrone, the FDU coach who has coached four NBA lottery picks — Keion Clarke, Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom and Tyrone Nesby — said Matthews is "as talented as any of them. ... He will be in the NBA."
Matthews gives all the credit to the Davises. Ryan was, and still is, his on-court coach, while Chuck takes over before and after games.
If not for the Davises, "I probably would've gotten a job somewhere, be a 7-footer working at McDonald's or Target," Matthews said.
Instead, seven years after he picked up a basketball, he's got a crack at the NBA.