They already hear enough of it.
How could Emmitt Matthews Jr. of Wilson High School and Erik Stevenson of Timberline be two of the top basketball players in the state? Those are supposed to come from Seattle, not Tacoma and Lacey.
And they certainly shouldn’t be two of the top in the nation, they heard all summer. The West Coast couldn’t have better players than East Coast.
Yet, here they are. Matthews signed to continue his basketball career at UConn next year, and Stevenson signed with Wichita State University after spending their offseasons playing AAU basketball together across the country, and earning loads of big-school scholarship offers.
They are two of the most recruited basketball players the South Sound has seen. Some of the offers Stevenson received: Wichita State, LSU, Old Dominion, Utah, Washington, Washington State, South Florida, Yale and Cal Poly. Matthews had attracted ones from UConn, Wichita State, Georgetown, Seton Hall, UW, Oregon State and West Virginia.
Then Stevenson walked into the Tumwater gymnasium for his first game of his senior season.
“They came out and the whole crowd, even the parents, were chanting, ‘Overrated,’ ” said Stevenson, a 6-foot-4 guard.
“I kind of got the butterflies. I was like, ‘Dang … it’s like that?’ ”
So Stevenson, soon after, caught a pass on the wing, blew past a defender and soared for a two-handed dunked on a 6-foot-6 defender.
He and the 6-foot-7 Matthews laughed at that while sitting next to each other in an office of the Morgan Family YMCA in Tacoma.
“You just watch, Emmitt,” Stevenson said to Matthews about opposing crowds. “It’s crazy.”
“I’m waiting for it,” Matthews said.
But before they compete at rival American Athletic Conference schools next year, they plan to spend just about every game this season proving they have the skills to match those big-school pedigrees.
“When we get in a gym together, we’re cool with each other,” Stevenson said. “It’s a respect thing. When we go to our separate schools, we get a lot of hate. I get a lot from where I’m at because it’s not supposed to be a basketball area. It’s football and baseball. There hasn’t been a guy from Lacey or Timberline to go away from the West Coast and succeed.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of that,” Matthews said. “I think it has to do with us not being in Seattle. Usually the Seattle guys are the best players in the state, the Seattle guys will be the best players out of Washington – and that’s just not true. Not in this class, at least.”
The South Sound has certainly produced some top basketball talent.
Curtis had Isaiah Thomas, Bellarmine Prep had two of the top-recruited point guards in the country in Avery Bradley and Abdul Gaddy and Capital’s Michael Fey was recruited to UW before landing at UCLA.
Thomas is now with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Bradley’s with the Detroit Pistons.
Matthews won’t be the first to head from the South Sound to UConn (Federal Way’s Donny Marshall did that, too). Kentwood had Rodney Stuckey and Josh Smith, Brian Scalabrine went from Enumclaw to the NBA and Blair Rasmussen was a first-round draft pick out of Auburn High School after a hall of fame career at Oregon.
“But Isaiah, Abdul and Avery were the only three in the South Sound recruited like this,” said Carl Howell, the former Eastern Washington University assistant and Tacoma CC coach. “It’s just a different era for these kids with how crazy social media has been. Michael Fey would have been recruited like this had he played in this era.
“But Emmitt and Erik are also just that good. I’ve said it all year, nobody in the state of Washington in this class has been recruited as heavily as those kids.”
Howell recognized that early. He was starting an AAU team, Washington Supreme, and he wanted to build it around Matthews and Stevenson.
They played on the Under Armour Circuit, playing tournaments in New York, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They played one team last summer with coaches Mike Kryzewski (Duke), John Calipari (Kentucky), Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Bill Self (Kansas) in attendance.
“There were certain times where the coaches could start heading to all the games and you could see them walking down the stairs,” Matthews said. “Like 500 coaches walking through.”
“And when you don’t have any offers, it’s a lot of pressure on you,” Stevenson added. “You have a bad game an you get back to the hotel and you’re like, ‘Man.’ ”
Matthews wasn’t so star struck when former New York Knicks center and current Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing called to offer a scholarship. But his dad was, he said.
And Matthews said he became friends with Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef.
“You can’t act like you are star struck,” Matthews said. “Because you know they don’t like that. We saw Shaq in Vegas and everybody was trying to take pictures and you could tell he was frustrated because he’s just there to watch his son play. So we just kind of went and said hi, dapped up (a hand shake) and parted ways.
“His hands are huge,” Stevenson laughed.
“Yeah, he made Erik look like a midget,” Matthews said.
They are better players than they were a season ago.
Stevenson said he bulked up almost 20 pounds this offseason working with his personal trainer. Now attacking the rim and posting up comes about as easy as his smooth 3-point shot.
He expects to grow a little more, too. Stevenson’s father, Craig Stevenson, is 6-foot-10 and went to the University of Puget Sound before playing professionally overseas (though the elder Stevenson was 6-2 when he graduated from Fort Hill High School in Maryland, Erik said). His sister, Rebecca, plays at Black Hills State in South Dakota and his mom, Debbie, was a three-sport athlete.
“He’s come in with a different mindset,” Timberline coach Allen Thomas said. “He’s trying to be a leader throughout the program, not just varsity, and giving our younger guys the model on how to be successful.”
Timberline has never had a player with the national attention Stevenson has. And it comes after Donaven Dorsey went to UW after graduating in 2015 (he’s now at Montana).
“It’s so inspirational,” Thomas said. “It gives the younger guys in our area hope. You ultimately have to be skilled enough, but it doesn’t matter where you are from – if you have the ability, you can produce, stay out of trouble, get good grades and guys see the potential in you, you can go somewhere.”
Matthews said the game almost feels like it’s in slow-motion for him this year.
And say what you will about how skinny the long senior is, but he makes up for it in core strength and speed. He could excel at any of the five positions on the court.
His father, Wilson assistant coach Emmitt Matthews Sr., was a three-sport athlete in Long Branch, New Jersey. That’s why Matthews Jr. was looking predominately at East Coast schools.
“He’s way more mature,” Wilson coach Dave Alwert said. “In everything he does. High character, outstanding student-athlete – he’s doing everything the right way. And he watches so much film and seeing what teams are trying to do to him. That really slows the game down.
“He’s my right-hand man. He’s been such a pleasure to coach for four years, even through the ups and downs. He’s been through such a growth process and believed in the process.”
He said Matthews and Stevenson are helping pave the way for other players.
“But let’s not stop there – you had David Jenkins (Wilson to South Dakota State), JaQuori McLaughlin (Peninsula to Oregon State, though since released) and Malachi Flynn (Bellarmine to WSU), too,” Alwert said. “The city has been booming for a long time. It’s just now getting the attention it deserves.”
And both said they’d prefer to first end their senior seasons with some state hardware in the Tacoma Dome. Neither Wilson or Timberline have ever won a state basketball title, though they might have to go through each other to do so.
“Everybody wants to win state, but I feel like that dream is so much more real for us than past years,” Matthews said.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677