As a die-hard Marquette fan, it is hard to put into words the impact guards Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James have had on the program the past four years. From Day 1, then head coach Tom Crean knew he had a special recruiting class, inserting all three into the starting lineup the very first time they suited up in a Golden Eagle jersey. But each of the three-headed backcourt has taken a different road to get to their current situation, waiting to find out if they will be picked in Thursday's 2009 NBA Draft.
In McNeal's case, he has shown a steady improvement each year at Marquette. As a freshman, the Hillcrest grad often looked like a chicken with his head cut off, forcing wild shots and turning the ball over at a high rate. His outside shot was as erratic as Britney Spears' behavior circa 2006. But year-by-year, McNeal continued to make strides with his all-around game. His three-point percentage was almost 40 percent his senior season and he displayed the tenacity to be a go-to player at the collegiate level, creating his own shot off the dribble almost at will. That scoring instinct eventually allowed him to become Marquette's all-time leading scorer and earned him second team All-American and first team All-Big East honors this past season.
Defensively, McNeal has always been a thorn in the opposition's side as confirmed by his Big East Defensive Player of the Year honor in 2006-2007. His ability to make a break on a ball in his passing lane to create steals or deflections is as natural as anyone's in college basketball.
The biggest thing holding McNeal back is his "tweener" label. The Chicago native measured in at 6-3 at the 2009 NBA Draft Combine which is not the ideal size for an NBA shooting guard. And while he occasionally ran the point at MU and has decent handles, he certainly is not a true point guard.
"I think initially the situation is I'll be a bit of combo type guard," McNeal told TSB.net founder Paul M. Banks at the Combine. "The most important thing, and this is why I'm so confident I can do it, is be able to guard both positions... From an offensive standpoint, it's just a readjustment of a mindset of exactly what you need to do in a game. It's not that difficult for me."
McNeal is pretty much a lock to be drafted in the second round, but I stand by my belief (and call it homering if you'd like) that if McNeal were two inches taller, we would hear his name being mentioned as a possible lottery pick.
James' career at Marquette is almost the complete opposite of McNeal's. While Jerel progressed season after season after season, James' play peaked right off the bat in his freshman campaign. The 5-11 point guard averaged 15.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game in his first year in blue and gold, earning him Big East Freshman of the Year honors. Those impressive numbers immediately thrust James onto the national scene and NBA scouts' radars, with some projecting him as a future lottery pick.
James' numbers dipped off his final three years at Marquette, massively dropping his draft stock. There has never been a question regarding his athleticism. To see someone his size dunk with ease, throwing down back-handed dunks like he was a power forward was almost breath-taking at times. His ability to drive to the basket and create for open teammates has always been a strength as well. The flaw in James' game comes with his outside shot. Consistency was a major issue as he shot less than 30 percent from downtown during his senior season, at times erasing any confidence he had from the perimeter.
A late-season broken bone in his foot pretty much sealed James' destiny to not be selected in the 2009 NBA Draft. I caught up with James after he worked out for the Bucks in late-May. He said his foot was still only about 75-80% healed.
"A lot of it is mental, just trusting it and knowing that I'm capable of doing the things I once could do," James said. "That's just the type of player I am. I persevere through any adversity I face."
The odds of James hearing his name called on Thursday are slim-to-none, but he should at least find a spot on some NBA team's summer league roster. Unless he wows a squad, his basketball career will likely continue overseas.
Of the three guards new to the scene at Marquette in 2005, I initially thought Matthews had the best chance of succeeding at the next level. He arrived at MU with a solid combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball skills. While he was a serviceable complementary player his first three years with the Golden Eagles, Matthews failed to live up to his full potential, playing third fiddle to McNeal and James. Then Tom Crean left for Indiana.
Matthews wasn't shy on senior night when he thanked first-year head coach Buzz Williams for "unleashing him." The Madison native made a huge leap during his senior season under Williams, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage. Matthews showed a consistency from beyond the arc, the ability to attack the basket off the drive, and played very physically as he often spent time at the four due to Marquette's lack of height. He was deservingly named second team All-Big East and his name started to appear on the second round of most 2009 NBA Mock Drafts.
While no specific area of his game stands out above the rest, Matthews can offer his all-around talent to whichever team drafts him, likely late in the second round.
"I'm going to do whatever you need me to do," Matthews told me after his workout with the Bucks. "I'm going to compete. I'm going to work. If my offense isn't on, I'm always going to have my defense... I'm going to do everything possible to make whatever team I'm on, a better team."
If Matthews isn't drafted, he will certainly find a spot on a summer league roster and could be a steal as an undrafted free agent.
Potential and upside aren't words associated with any of the Marquette prospects. It's highly unlikely any of them will reach Dwyane Wade-type stardom in the NBA, but having spent four years being major contributors at Marquette should have prepared all three prospects for whatever lies ahead in the basketball careers. Matthews echoed that thought.
"Along with Dominic and Jerel, we've been battle tested for four years. We're physically ready to play an 82-game season at what position you want us to play, at whatever role you want us to play in, and we're only going to get better."
McNeal agreed. "I think any time you come into a situation where you get a guy, not just us three, but guys who have been in college for four years and have proven ourselves, from a competitive standpoint, on a night-in, night-out basis, you know that you're going to get a good solid competitive basketball player no matter what happens."
No matter what happens next, their contributions to the Marquette basketball program won't be forgotten any time soon, and hopefully all three can follow in the footsteps of Travis Diener and Steve Novak, and find a role in the NBA.