The Washington Wizards have a conditioning drill they give to draft prospects that, in truth, isn’t meant to be passed.
In the test, players run from baseline to baseline — back-and-forth, back-and-forth — as many times in a row as possible, until a player’s lungs demand that he stops. The drill is a way for the Wizards to see which prospects will try to push through when conditions are against them.
Watching over this exercise prior to the 2019 draft, coach Scott Brooks couldn’t help but notice Garrison Mathews — a lanky forward from Nashville’s tiny Lipscomb University.
“He (set) our record,” Brooks said. “I thought his lungs were going to explode. He was running so hard. You could tell he wanted to slow down, but was determined. That got my attention right there.”
Mathews went undrafted, though the workout helped convince the Wizards to offer him a two-way contract last season.
A year later, Mathews is back with Washington on another two-way — but this time, the 24-year-old has earned a spot in the starting lineup. And he’s proving to be a valuable contributor, thanks to that same type of determination that landed him on the roster in the first place.
Entering Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics, Mathews is averaging 7.4 points and 16.6 minutes per game this season. But since Mathews moved into the starting lineup on Feb. 12, the Wizards are 7-2 and are benefiting from Mathew’s ability to space the floor.
In Saturday’s 128-112 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Mathews scored 18 points and went 3 of 4 beyond the arc.
“I know I have a short leash, and that’s OK,” Mathews said. “Being on my second two-way in my second year, we’ve got older guys in here. I’ve just got to continue to focus on what I’m doing.
“I don’t really care if I make a lot of money or a little money. I’m just trying to keep that mindset every day of working as hard as I can because that’s just what I was taught at an early age.”
Because of his two-way contract, Mathews will make just $449,155 this season — well below the standard league minimum of $898,310. As part of the deal, two players can only be active for 50 of the team’s 72 games before a team has to decide to convert that contract into a standard contract or assign that player to the G-League. Entering Sunday’s game, Mathews had already played in 25 games and been active for 28.
Despite Mathews’ unheralded status coming out of college, the guard is now playing at small forward over first-rounders such as Troy Brown Jr. and Jerome Robinson. The Wizards drafted Brown 15th overall in 2018 and traded for Robinson, the 13th overall pick that year, just last year. Both have started for Washington at small forward in the past, which Mathews does currently.
There’s a reason for that. Brooks said Mathews has the “toughness and the fight” to earn a regular spot.
That can be seen even when Mathews makes a mistake. During last week’s game against the Denver Nuggets, Mathews came flying in to try and stop guard Facundo Campazzo’s three-point attempt with a football-like tackle.
Mathews was called for a foul on the play and the shot still went in. But the hustle was undeniable.
“He’s just a young man who takes advantage of his opportunity,” teammate Bradley Beal said. “That’s all the NBA is. The lifespan of the league is three years. You have to take every single opportunity you have man and hold on to it as it’s your last. That’s all G is doing.”
Mathews said he’s used to working his way up. He admitted he wasn’t the best player coming out of high school, having primarily played football. Not heavily recruited, he committed to Lipscomb, where he sat for the majority of his freshman year before a teammate’s injury created an opening.
By the time Mathews left Lipscomb after his senior year, he graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
“That underdog has been instilled in me for a while,” Mathews said.
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