Charles Matthews almost wasn’t in Rosemont, Ill., fielding questions at Big Ten Media Day last Thursday.
It took until the 11th hour for the redshirt junior wing to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft and return to Michigan for another season instead of attempting to parlay his NCAA Tournament success — including a West Region Most Outstanding Player award — into a professional contract.
But ultimately, Matthews realized he was better served returning to the Wolverines.
“I felt that I needed another year to develop,” Matthews said. “ … I just have to become a more consistent player. I don’t want to have a lot of lapses in the season.”
Make no mistake: Matthews didn’t come back out of some sort of duty to the team. He returned because he believed it would be best for his future. But as much as he felt he needed more time at Michigan to become the kind of player he knows he can be, the Wolverines need him to be that player if they want to become the kind of team they know they can be.
Outsiders, remembering Matthews’ NCAA Tournament performance, selected him to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team and with it picked Michigan to finish second in the Big Ten. But the Wolverines know that’s far from a guarantee.
“I see us picked second by people,” said Michigan coach John Beilein at Media Day. “I don’t see where that comes from.”
What Beilein does see is a team that lost its top three shooters — guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, wing Duncan Robinson and forward Moritz Wagner — to the pros. Beilein saw a Matthews who went through long cold spells, committed too many turnovers and struggled at the foul line in the regular season. After the Wolverines’ 2018 March Madness run, it’s all too easy to forget about that version of Matthews.
But if Matthews can find consistency and become the player that ran rampage over the West region, maybe second in the Big Ten isn’t such a lofty proposition. Small improvements in 3-point and free-throw shooting could go a long way. Last year during the regular season, Matthews shot just 32 percent from beyond the arc and 56 percent on free throws.
“Just eight more (3-pointers) over 32 games, he’d be a 40-percent shooter,” Beilein said. “ … So it’s not (like) he’s gotta make these giant strides. Going to the foul line, if he took 150 foul shots, if he made 10 more he goes up seven percentage points. These are things that are doable for him.”
It’s easier said than done, of course. But the talent is there, and in early practices, Beilein has already seen growth in those areas. And if Matthews does make that leap, he would fill in some of the gaps created by last year’s departures.
“Continuing to make these baby steps every day,” Beilein said. “ … He works hard, so he’ll get it done.”
Ultimately, Matthews is here because he didn’t just want to play in the NBA, he wanted to have a career in the NBA — the kind of career that demands complete, consistent players.
He’s here because in his two years under Beilein, he’s begun to refine the talent that originally made him a five-star recruit.
He’s here to be the leader of a young group that wants big things — Matthews is the oldest, most experienced player on this year’s squad.
And if Matthews does develop into the dynamic, NBA-caliber player he can see himself becoming, he’ll simultaneously develop into the All-Big Ten player the media sees him becoming — and possibly the missing piece in Michigan’s offense. If Matthews achieves his goals, it becomes that much more likely that so too will the Wolverines.
Then, when Matthews and Michigan eventually part ways, everyone will go home happy.