Editor’s note: This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on April 19.
Matthew Dellavedova and fellow undrafted free agent Henry Sims sat patiently in the Cleveland Cavaliers video room last October, waiting for their fellow NBA hopefuls to arrive.
“It was a bit surreal because we were just in the video session and a couple of the other guys weren’t there,” Dellavedova told ESPN Aussies Abroad.
Throughout training camp, the Cavaliers had not announced when players had been cut. Instead, the group simply became smaller as training camp progressed, until there were only two players left to fill the final spots on the Cavaliers roster. Alone in the video room, Dellavedova and Sims were the last men standing.
For Dellavedova, the 23-year-old from the goldfields region of Victoria, this moment was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, and now he had finally hit the NBA jackpot.
“You think back to all the hours you spend as a little kid, dreaming of playing in the NBA one day,” Dellavedova said. “And then, when it finally happens, it doesn’t feel real.”
Dellavedova’s road to basketball’s biggest stage began in May last year, when NBA teams across the country began their pre-draft workouts. These workouts are the rite of passage for all NBA hopefuls, who trek across the country competing in basketball combine drills and petitioning their wares in front of coaches, general managers and owners.
“I think I ended up having about 13 or 14 workouts, travelling all around America,” he said.
Lasting anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, workouts took place mostly in the morning and rarely involved full team drills, instead focusing on one-on-one, two-on-two and three-on-three activities.
“It’s pretty intense, because everybody knows what’s on the line,” Dellavedova explained. “You’ve got to be up and about, ready to go right from the start to show them what you have in that hour and a half.”
In addition to on-court workouts, teams also subject players to a variety of physical and psychological tests.
“It was pretty full on, but I enjoyed the experience,” he said.
Heading into the NBA Draft on June 27, Dellavedova felt confident about his chances of being selected. His agent Billy Duffy, who also represents Joakim Noah, Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash, had received positive feedback from several teams, so Dellavedova’s camp was quietly optimistic that his name would be called that evening.
At the house of Saint Mary’s basketball coach Randy Bennett, Dellavedova and a group of coaches watched and waited. It was a long couple of hours.
“A team comes up that you think you had a pretty good workout for and who said that they’re interested in you, and then they pick somebody else. So, you know, I was very disappointed after the draft,” Dellavedova said, reflecting on that evening.
Dellavedova didn’t have time to lament his misfortune for too long, however, when Bill Duffy called to tell him that the Cleveland Cavaliers had offered him a partially guaranteed contract and invited him to play for them in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
The 2013 Summer League in Las Vegas featured 22 NBA teams playing in a tournament format over a ten-day period in July. Teams use the annual event as an opportunity to better evaluate which prospects are worth the investment of a guaranteed contract, and which are not.
Playing 20 minutes per game, Dellavedova averaged 2.8 points, 3.0 assists and 2.6 rebounds, shooting 27.3% from the field. More importantly, however, Summer League provided him with the opportunity to strengthen his relationship with the Cavaliers’ scouts and coaching staff in an effort to secure a call back for their final try-outs in September.
“It was a good experience,” Dellavedova said. “I got to know some of the guys and some of the coaches and play a different style of basketball,” Dellavedova said. “It was a good experience going against those type of athletes.”
Dellavedova’s athleticism, or lack there of, has been a constant narrative throughout his career. But any doubts surrounding his ability to overcome his physical shortcomings were quelled by his natural leadership qualities and his physical style. Dellavedova’s international experience helped him significantly with his development and his intangible’s quickly separated him from other Summer League invitees.
The Cavaliers saw enough in Dellavedova in Las Vegas to want him back in September for final try-outs, but instead of staying in the United States, Dellavedova chose to travel to Auckland to play in a two-game series against New Zealand in the 2013 FIBA Oceania Championships. With his NBA future hanging in the balance, and no guaranteed contract in place, Dellavedova knew that any form of injury could potentially end his NBA dream, but the urge to represent his country was too strong.
The Boomers won the series 2-0, with Dellavedova playing a key role in the victories, and he returned to Cavaliers training camp with renewed confidence in his ability to contribute in the NBA.
After securing a spot on the Cavaliers roster, Dellavedova’s minutes fluctuated in the opening of months of the season as he battled for playing time. With established players like Kyrie Irving and Jarrett Jack ahead of him in the lineup, Dellavedova focused on things that were within his control like putting in extra hours at practice to ensure that when his number was called, he would be ready.
“You’re going to get your reps in practice so you’ve got to try to make the most of them and prove your worth,” he said. “You’re not going to just be given an opportunity in a game, you have to earn it. So I was just trying to go in and work hard. Just trying to get a little bit better each day, so that when my opportunity came, I was ready to take it.”
Getting a little bit better each day meant getting to practice early to get extra shots up. It also meant watching tape with the assistant coaches and spending extra time in the weight room to develop his strength and prepare his body for the harshness of an 82-game NBA season.
“The little things like that add up, so you can improve a lot during the season,” he said.
Throughout his first season in the NBA, Dellavedova has improved significantly, increasing his playing time through a combination of more efficient shooting, better defense and smarter decision-making.
“I’ve got better at pushing the ball in transition and making the right reads in transition and off pick-and-rolls,” Dellavedova explained. “I’ve also improved my shooting and how to defend within the team concepts, because NBA defenses are a little bit different.”
His defense has improved so considerably that he has often been tasked with defending opposition’s best player. On March 20, when the Oklahoma City Thunder visited Cleveland, Dellavedova was called upon for his toughest defensive assignment to date. With Cleveland’s top wing defender Luol Deng out injured, and small forward Alonzo Gee in foul trouble, Cavaliers’ coach Mike Brown summoned Dellavedova to guard the NBA’s most prolific scorer, Kevin Durant.
Giving up roughly six inches, Dellavedova agitated Durant with his physical style of defense, causing the Thunder forward to miss five of his first six shots.
“He plays hard,” Durant said after the game. “You can respect a player like that.”
Mike Brown bestowed similar praise on the young Australian.
“One thing Delly’s going to do for sure is fight,” Brown said. “He’s going to get up in your chest and he’s going to bother you, he’s going to show his hands so he’s not going to foul you. He makes you work for points.”
For Dellavedova, he looked at the assignment of guarding a player like Kevin Durant in a more uncomplicated way.
“He’s the best scorer in the NBA, so when I went in and had to guard him I was just trying to not to let him catch the ball, because if he catches the ball it’s going to be tough to stop him,” he said. “There’s no one that can guard him one-on-one. You’ve just got to try and not let him catch it and make somebody else make a play for their team.”
For an NBA rookie, the grind of an 82-game season can be a difficult adjustment after becoming accustomed to the significantly shorter college campaigns.
“It’s been pretty full on,” Dellavedova said about the NBA workload. “You’re playing three or four games a week, so there’re no breaks apart from a little one at the All Star break. You’ve just got to make sure that you take really good care of your body and not overdo it.”
Finding that balance between hard work and rest has been the key to Dellavedova’s steady improvement as the season has progressed.
“You’ve got to get your extra work in, but you need to be smart about it otherwise you’ll burn out,” he said. “And you’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of your mind as well, so that you’re ready to go for each game.”
In addition to adapting to a longer basketball season, Dellavedova has also endured an extended season of a different kind. This past winter was the eighth snowiest on record for the Cleveland area, with 86.1 inches of snow to date.
“It was a long winter,” he said. “Everyone says it was one of the worst winters in 15 or 20 years, so that was a shock to the system.”
Despite the brutally cold temperatures across the state of Ohio, the temperature inside the Quicken Loans Arena has felt considerably warmer, despite the Cavaliers up and down season.
“The people here are great, they really get behind the team, and show a lot of support at each home game,” Dellavedova said.
This past February, Saint Mary’s College retired the No. 4 jersey that Dellavedova had worn throughout his four-year career at the school. Dellavedova became only the second men’s player at Saint Mary’s to have his number retired, joining Tom Meschery whose No. 31 was raised to the rafters in 1973.
“That was a pretty awesome experience,” Dellavedova said. “My mum and dad came back over for it, so it was really special to have them there, and just a huge honor.”
Dellavedova was a three-time first-team all-West Coast Conference player and won the player of the year and tournament MVP award in 2012. Perhaps his most famous moment as a member of the Gaels, however, came against BYU in 2013, when he hit a buzzer-beater from just over half court to beat the Cougars 70-69. It was only fitting then that the Saint Mary’s opponent for the night of his ceremony was his old rival.
“I loved playing at St Mary’s and it’s always going to be a home away from home for me after spending four years there, so it was definitely a very cool experience and one that I won’t forget,” he said.
Dellavedova’s NBA rookie campaign concluded on Wednesday with a 114-85 win over the Brooklyn Nets. Irrespective of the blowout win, the Cavaliers finished the season with a 33-49 record, missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Dellavedova finished the year having played in 72 games, whilst averaging 17.7 minutes, 4.7 points and 2.6 assists per game.
Reviews of Dellavedova’s rookie season have been nothing but positive, and despite not having a guaranteed contract in place for the 2014-15 season, the Cavaliers are expected to re-sign him. But, like draft night, he knows not to take anything for granted
“[The contract] is a team option, so they’ve got the option to keep me next year, so hopefully they pick that up,” he said.
In the meantime, it’s back to work for Dellavedova, improving on his game, getting in more reps and finding new ways to improve.
“I’ve got Summer League and then Boomers starts. We’ve got the World Cup in Spain, so I’m really looking forward to that and I can’t wait to pull on the green and gold again,” he said.
In 2012, Dellavedova’s strong play at the London Olympics against the professional guards on Spain and Team USA put him in the global spotlight. When he returns to the international arena at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in August, he will be one of the leaders of the Australian national basketball team, and this time, it will be him who is the professional.