By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer
Six-foot-9, lanky and complete with a mullet and mustache, junior wing Matthew Mayer is impossible to miss on the basketball court. Add the fact that he has seemingly endless confidence with the ball and is deceptively athletic, capable of slamming the ball down like Lebron James, and the Austin native is one of the most unique and memorable players on the Baylor men’s basketball team.
But highlight dunks and a flashy playing style alone don’t get you to the NBA, and it certainly doesn’t get you a lot of minutes on a Scott Drew-coached team. Mayer learned this the hard way over his first two seasons at Baylor, where he only averaged 11 minutes per game and never started.
While Mayer hasn’t lacked confidence during his time in Waco, he did lack the necessary work-ethic at first to be a major contributor for the Bears, according to head coach Scott Drew. Mayer himself admitted he wasn’t always the most coachable player, resistant to changing his game.
“The thing is that when he first got here, he would always be there for open gym, but the other part maybe not as much,” Drew said.
But every player goes through this at one point or another in their career. Even senior forward and team leader Mark Vital was “immature” early in his career.
“I’ve been in your position,” Vital would tell Mayer. “I was immature at one point. I was doing some different stuff.”
Mayer began to focus less on playing aggressive and flashy and turned his focus more on playing efficiently this season. The junior is consistent in crediting his coaches with helping him find what is most efficient for his unique skill set.
“I’ve been working a lot with a lot of our managers shooting, and I’ve been doing post-ups recently, really taking some of my pride out of it and listening to what my coaches have to say,” Mayer said. “They’re not going out trying to make me not be aggressive. They just want me to be aggressive at the right times, so just understanding that has helped me a lot.”
The fruits of Mayer’s changed mindset this season have already begun to show as well. Mayer’s player efficiency rating has skyrocketed this year, jumping from an average of 17.6 his sophomore season to 27.7, good enough to be 37th best in the nation. While he still has yet to start a game for the Bears, it’s clear to everyone watching that Drew has begun to place more trust in Mayer.
“Matt is one of those guys, very talented when he came in and really improved a lot of areas that maybe you don’t see but then translates in the game,” Drew said. “I think Matt’s really matured in his game. Because of that, his efficiency and his numbers are much better.”
Mayer’s mentality change hasn’t been the only reason for his success. Drew raved about how Mayer has changed nearly everything about his preparation before games to improve as a player.
“His practice habits are a lot better; he works a lot harder,” Drew said. “He’s doing a better job of taking care of his body in the weight room. Nutrition-wise, he’s better. Getting here early, staying later. A lot of maturity and growth, and he deserves a lot of that credit.”
Perhaps the biggest factor behind Mayer’s growth has been his increased willingness to be coached and be held accountable by his coaches. Mayer told the story in a recent press conference of how he left the gym before he finished all of his post-practice free throws. Mayer said when he returned to finish them, associate head coach Jerome Tang told Mayer to restart his free throws. Mayer’s reaction to the tough-love coaching shows how far he has come as a player and a person.
“I was really upset, but I didn’t say nothing to him. I just did it and then told him, ‘Thank you for keeping me accountable,’” Mayer said. “It sounds like a small story, but I think that was a moment for me because I’ve always had back and forth with my coaches. That’s not something I would’ve done, not even close to that.”
Through this growth, Mayer has surpassed his reputation as an inefficient player who occasionally produces a highlight reel dunk or play. He’s now a key cog in the team that has now achieved the best start in Baylor program history. What’s even more exciting for Baylor fans is that Mayer’s growth shows no sign of stopping.
“He took a package out of everybody’s book, because he’s watching us,” Vital said about Mayer. “Matt became a better rebounder; he took it from me. A better defender, he took it from me. A better shooter, watching MaCio. He sees that Davion and everybody does a great job of driving and everything. Matt was always that guy that can learn.”
Mayer’s ability to watch and learn from his teammates, as well as his newfound focus on efficiency, has even led him to be christened “the best NBA prospect at Baylor” by ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, which is no small praise considering the players Baylor has.
“I always tell him; I feel like he’s got the most NBA everything. 6’9″, can shoot, athletic,” Vital said. “I feel like he’s got it all.”
It remains to be seen if Mayer can fully maximize his potential at Baylor, but with the growth and maturity he has showcased this year, it seems more like a foregone conclusion than an actual question. If his game and maturity continues to blossom, it might finally be Matthew Mayer’s time to take the spotlight.