EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Amid dozens of draft hopefuls in a gym loaded with decision-makers from each of the NBA's 30 franchises, AJ Matthews wanted to prove he belonged.
Players from well-known colleges such as Syracuse, Louisville, Arizona, Temple, Oregon and Wisconsin -- among others -- were racing up and down the court at the Nets' PNY Center, participating in some five-on-five action at the scouting combine. And there was Matthews, a 6-11, 212- pound Brooklyn native who played the last two seasons at Division III Farmingdale State, trying to hold his own.
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Celtics president Danny Ainge, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Hawks GM Danny Ferry, 76ers president Rod Thorn and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni were just a few of the people in attendance. So this was Matthews' chance to get on someone's radar, and he didn't want to blow it.
"I just took it all in," Matthews said. "It made me just want to play harder. I felt like I've got to put on a good show for them and try to show them what I can do and make them interested in me."
Getting an invite to the two-day scouting combine held by the Nets in conjunction with the Rockets and Clippers was the first step. Matthews' raw talents could garner him a few more invites leading up to next month's draft, perhaps aiding in a team wanting to give him a developmental look. He measured in with a wingspan of 7 feet, 3 1/2 inches, and when discussing the players who did well in the first five-on-five scrimmage of the camp's second day, Nets director of player personnel Gregg Polinsky mentioned Matthews.
"I thought that he was impressive," Polinsky said. "I thought he did a nice job as a big, long guy that obviously has not played at the Division I level but showed that he is capable of doing so, and I think that will earn him some workouts and some looks."
Although he had that Division I talent out of high school, Matthews' academic issues eventually led him to Farmingdale (where he was listed as standing 7-1). He averaged 22.4 points and 16.3 rebounds with 26 double-doubles as a junior en route to garnering Division III first-team All-American honors.
Maybe that's why he wasn't intimidated at all by his combine competition.
"At the end of the day, it's basketball," Matthews said. "I feel like we've been playing basketball for a long time. Just some things in high school, I just didn't do too good as far as grades and where I was going to go. But I had big-time schools looking at me when I came out of high school. It just didn't turn out well. But at the end of the day, you've still got to go on the court and make a jump shot, make a layup, play defense.
"You've still got to do the same thing as anyone else. So that really doesn't bother me as far as Division I and Division II."
Not when he looked back on the winding road he'd traveled just to get to this point, auditioning with hopes of demonstrating he's a diamond in the rough.
"It's been great. It's a blessing," Matthews said. "I feel like I can go through it, go strong and try to keep working every day. Every drill they tell me to do, I try to go as hard as I can, show what I can do -- shoot, play defense, be a leader on the court.
"It was really good for me to be here. It'll make me a better basketball player."