MIAMI — Garrison Mathews is likely one of four players battling for the Celtics’ final two roster spots, but his pedigree is not quite like those of the others.
Jabari Parker was a star at Duke before becoming a No. 2 overall draft pick. Bruno Fernando was a standout at Maryland and was chosen in the second round. Ryan Arcidiacono was the most outstanding player of the Final Four when he led Villanova to a national title, and though he was not drafted he eventually signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Bulls.
On Thursday afternoon, Mathews stood in a hallway in the bowels of FTX Arena, shrugged his shoulders, and nodded as he recounted his path. He was not recruited by major Division I schools, so he went to Lipscomb and became the Atlantic Sun Conference’s player of the year as a senior in 2019. He was not drafted, so he signed a two-way deal with the Wizards and shot the ball so well he pushed into Washington’s regular rotation last season.
Now he is with the Celtics, and he is trying to make an NBA roster as a full-time player for the first time. He does not want to be counted out.
“Man, I’ve been an underdog forever — in college, here,” Mathews said. “I just try to do the best I can every day and come in with a good attitude and work as hard as I can, and that’s all I can do. It’s tough being an underdog, because everything you do is under a microscope. Your mistakes are looked at more. So you just try to limit those and be a great teammate.”
Mathews made 38.4 percent of his 3-pointers and scored 5.5 points per game for the Wizards last year. He said he was focused on being a safety valve for stars Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, occasionally pulling defenses in his direction with his long-range shooting.
But he mostly slipped out of the rotation over the final few weeks of the season, stalling some of his progress.
“It was a good experience for me,” Mathews said. “I try to take my ego out of it, because when you start pouting when you get taken out of the rotation, that starts filling your head, and it definitely brings you down and makes it tough for you to thrive in this league.”
Mathews said he signed with the Celtics because he believed he was a good fit for their roster and that he would have a chance to make the team. He did not appear in Boston’s first two preseason games, and when he checked in during the first quarter of Wednesday’s game against the Magic, he looked like a player who believed his chances to make an impact were dwindling. He quickly forced two tough, deep, contested 3-pointers that missed.
He settled down after that, though, making two of his final five shots from beyond the arc, including a 4-point play.
“I’ve always tried to be an aggressive player and take shots when I see them,” Mathews said. “Sometimes I’ll take a couple of bad ones, which I shouldn’t. But I haven’t played a game in a while. It’s been six months. There’s some nerves, but there’s no excuses. I’m fighting for a spot so I need to come in and do the best I can.”
The Celtics also have an open two-way contract spot, and Mathews said he has yet to consider whether he would be interested in that chance if it is offered. For now, he’s focused on trying to make the team outright.
“He’s a guy that comes in and can be instant offense,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “He’s got a quick trigger, deep range, and lets it fly. People know what he brings to the table and have to guard him. So he’s always that threat out there, not bashful at all, and very aggressive. He’s been that since Day One of camp, and you saw that yesterday.”