Matthews, Smyrna eye Slam Dunk spotlight

SMYRNA — The funny thing is, Caleb Matthews was never a great shooter when he was little.

The youngster only wanted to dribble a basketball when he got his hands on one.

“When I was little, I could not shoot very well, no,” admitted the Smyrna High junior. “They would always give me a hard time.”

It was only when he got to seventh or eighth grade that Matthews realized he couldn’t just drive past defenders anymore.

He was always playing against older kids. Now they were a lot bigger and stronger than him.

Smyrna’s 6-foot-3 Caleb Matthews, who is averaging a team-best 17.8 points per game, said he’s always liked going up against good competition. He’s looking forward to just watching some of the national-caliber programs at Slam Dunk. (Delaware State News file photo)

“I just had to rely on my jump shot,” said Matthews.

Ironically, now that he’s an established high school player, people expect Matthews to be a consistent three-point threat. It’s the other parts of his game that the junior guard is demonstrating as he’s become one of the leaders for the 5-0 Eagles.

Matthews and his Smyrna teammates will get the chance to display their skills this week at the Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament at Cape Henlopen.

The Eagles tip off the three-day event on Tuesday with a noon game against Bishop McNamara, Md. Smyrna then faces perennial in-state power Sanford on Thursday at 12:30 p.m.

The 6-foot-3 Matthews, who is averaging a team-best 17.8 points per game, said he’s always liked going up against good competition. He’s looking forward to just watching some of the national-caliber programs at Slam Dunk.

“Delaware is small, sometimes you only get to see what that looks like,” he said. “But to see outside teams that are on a national level, it’s good to see how you compare against them.

“It makes you better,” said Matthews, who’s been playing on AAU teams since he was in third grade. “People are always going to be bigger, stronger and faster than you. You’ve just got to figure out different ways to play.”

Matthews has been a contributor since he made Smyrna’s varsity as a freshman.

Eagles’ coach Andrew Mears, though, wanted to bring the youngster along slowly. He didn’t want to give him too much responsibility too soon.

“We knew how special he was going to be in a few years,” said Mears. “The point was to let him develop. We knew he could handle a lot from the start as a freshman on varsity. But each and every year he’s just ready for more.”

Along with his scoring, which includes 12 made three-pointers so far, Matthews is also averaging seven assists and six rebounds per game.

His teammates aren’t surprised that Matthews keeps raising his level of play. They could tell he was a kid who was serious about basketball, putting in the extra work to make himself better.

“While we’re in there (the locker room) changing, he’s in the gym getting his shots up,” said sophomore Jaymeir Garnett. “I love playing with that kid. He’s amazing.

“He had his shot fall off so that made him work harder in the gym to find his shot in the beginning of the year. He’s capable of a lot more. A lot of teams think he’s just a shooter. … You see him driving a lot more.”

Basketball has always been a big thing in Matthews’ family. His dad, Jason, played on the underdog St. Mark’s team that won the state championship in 1989.

Caleb has heard some of the stories and seen videos from that season.

“Even back then, the atmosphere just looked like a lot of fun to play in such a big game,” said Matthews.

Matthews would love to get that kind of opportunity with the Eagles. In a season in which there doesn’t seem to be any clearcut favorite to win the state crown. Smyrna might have as good a chance as anybody.

Matthews said the only stat he cares about is the Eagles’ won-loss record.

“I just want to win,” he said. “Whatever the team needs to win, that’s what I’m going to do.

“We’re still learning how to play together but it’s getting better. There’s no favorite this year, I don’t think. I think it’s an open race for whoever works the hardest and figures it all out.”

Free throws

Radio station 1290-AM is broadcasting the Smyrna-Sanford game on Thursday. … Abba Lawal, a 6-foot-10 sophomore who transferred to Smyrna in the offseason, has moved back to Ohio. The Eagles do still have 7-foot-1 transfer Zubi Nwankwo. … Cape Henlopen is the other Henlopen team in the Slam Dunk field. The Vikings will face Mount Pleasant on Tuesday at 9 p.m. before taking on Eleanor Roosevelt, Md. on Thursday at 9 p.m. … There are teams from nine states in this year’s Slam Dunk as well as one from Ontario. … A Unified basketball game will be held on Thursday, in between sessions, starting at apprximately 3:30 p.m.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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