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It’s Matthew Mayer Time: The Profile on Overcoming Doubt that Keyed the Baylor Forward’s Success

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Even the best deal with self-doubt

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Baylor Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative about Matthew Mayer—that his overconfidence is why he used to turn down shots as often as an alcoholic on $2 fireball night—is wrong. That’s a blunt way to start a profile, but most of the time, we only remember one big narrative about someone or something years later.

In an era of constant information, and an educational system that rewards knowing about something long enough to pass a test, our long-term memories are decimated. Well, at least mine is. Maybe you wrote a series of magnificent essays at 15 about “Animal Farm.” But years later all most folks remember about that book is that communism doesn’t work. And years later, most folks aren’t going to remember how well Mayer played defensively against Iowa State—though we’ll cover that too—but I hope they remember what he overcame to be this good.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Baylor
Mayer and his roommate Jared Butler have been on the two best teams in Baylor history
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Mayer played high school basketball 14 minutes from Texas, and his mother attended Texas A&M. But he ended up at Baylor. Mayer explains that, “It wasn’t that the other schools weren’t great. I just thought that Baylor was the best.”

During his junior season in high school, Mayer says, “ I was ranked No. 1 in the state by all these ranking things. But people don’t know this: I always struggled a lot with fear and what people think about me in the stands, and not feeling like I was deserving to shoot the ball.”

That might seem wild to Baylor fans, but Mayer explains, “I got ranked the No. 1 player in the state, and so obviously there’s huge expectations that you’re supposed to be averaging 35-40 points. I went out and averaged 8.8 points on like 21% from three and nobody thought I was in the top 100, and I didn’t think I was in the top 100 anymore. That was super hard for me because in high school all I wanted to do was hide and stand in the corner. (I had a) I didn’t want to mess up attitude.”

To counter that attitude, Mayer arrived at Baylor and says, “Freshman year it was like, I would force it because I’m not coming back to that. I don’t care if I shoot a million shots. I’m not going back to that.”

Mayer’s mindset put him in a rough spot to open his Baylor career. The Bears lost to Texas Southern, and Mayer says, “I played nine minutes and went 0-for-9 that game (he went 0-for-6, but it’s a nice change that in a time of bravado, Mayer remembers a worse performance than happened). I was upset with myself, and thought, ‘man, do I even belong here.’ I probably wasn’t thinking about the team as much as, ‘I don’t even belong here.”

Despite his early struggles against Texas Southern, Mayer flashed the skillset that Baylor’s staff and so many recruiting services saw. Against Arizona, Mayer ran a middle pick-and-roll and hit Jared Butler for an open three. He says, “Being able to read the opposite side defense, that’s part of my game. They’d joke about me shooting a lot—and I do shoot a lot—but I think I’m a pretty underrated passer.” He is:

After a rough start for the Bears, the team rallied to win an NCAA Tournament game. He credits their turnaround in the Wichita State game—a contest where they got down 40-9—and notes, “A lot of guys being mature like Makai (Mason) and Jared came along really quickly—helped carry us to some wins.”

Unfortunately Mayer had offseason surgery before his sophomore season. That limited his ability to improve. He says, “I was out for, I don’t even know how many months. I was out for like four months. It was a long time. I didn’t get to do much. My sophomore summer I didn’t really get to do any strength training or conditioning or anything.” Although Mayer enjoyed the Bears’ trip to Italy, the surgery meant he couldn’t play at all on that trip.

His sophomore season didn’t start out the way he’d hoped. With Mario Kegler no longer part of the program, Mayer still wasn’t playing too many minutes. The though of transferring crept into his mind early last season. He says, “I wasn’t playing with a dude (Kegler) that played 25-30 minutes gone. I was thinking, ‘if Rio’s gone, what’s the point in me even staying. I’m never going to have the chance.”

Mayer rejected that notion, and elected to stay at Baylor. He says, “if my goal is to be in the NBA, I need to focus on getting to that point. If I’m truly an NBA player, then they’ll play me. And if I’m not an NBA player, then I’m just going to spend my career at Baylor.”

After showing his potential in a big win against Villanova, Mayer had a fantastic performance against West Virginia. This is probably the most memorable play of Mayer’s career:

He says the defender, “was trying to keep me in the corner, so I tried to go straight up, and then I just spun, and the baseline was wide open, and I just happened to dunk it. It wasn’t too much of a thought process for me.”

That game seemed like a turning point in Mayer’s season. He’d played 14 minutes or fewer in the previous 10 games. He says, “I was playing almost none at the beginning of the year...the West Virginia game was kind of a turning point.” Over the final six games that he was healthy, Mayer played at least 15 minutes in all of them. He had 19 points on just seven shots in a victory at Kansas State, which earned him KenPom’s game MVP.

Mayer actually thinks the West Virginia dunk isn’t his best. He says, “My favorite dunk was the one at TCU my freshman year. I was playing really well, and then I got a steal on a fast break. Alex Robinson went under me, and it was so hyped for me. It was the first Big 12 game. That was my favorite.” While I respect Mayer’s ability to dunk, I’m going with the West Virginia one. This one was real and spectacular though:

The Bears were playing well with a variety of lineups last season; there’s a reason they were going to earn the program’s first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. One key lineup during that run had Mayer at the four. When I talked to him this summer, MaCio Teague told me, “Four guard lineups can spread the floor a lot. Throw Matt Mayer in there, floor really spreads out and (we have) good opportunities to work.”

Mayer would have been healthy for the Big 12 and NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately COVID-19 struck. He says, “We were sitting in the hotel room watching the Mavs game...We’re sitting there like ‘the whole NBA got canceled.’ And then they called us down for a meeting, so I knew it was canceled. Then we had a season ending talk, and we started chilling the rest of the time. It was pretty tough for us and Freddie and Devonte. That was a tough blow for them.”

Coming into the season, Jared Butler told me, “Matt’s my roommate. I see him everyday. He’s growing as a person...that’s going to translate.”

I did not realize it, and I don’t think Butler meant it that way, but it turns out that was a double entendre. In a great podcast with Ashley Hodge and Jason King of SicEm365, Mayer mentioned that he put on a lot of weight eating Long John Silver’s over the summer. I didn’t want to press why anyone would eat there when Waco has literally any other fast food establishment, but Mayer says, “I’d be sitting there with my shirt off, and they’d (roommates) be poking my stomach.”

He gained the weight, he says because, “There wasn’t much thought to it. I was chilling at home, eating everything I could because I was bored. I was chunky.” In a description that works in retrospect, but will be the excuse for many when everything returns to normal, he adds, “I didn’t look like I was fat. I just looked like I gained somewhat fat, somewhat muscle.”

For anyone that’s found themselves so big during this catastrophic period that they’re using a profile picture from long before we’d heard about social distancing, Mayer provides hope that you too can lose the fat. He says, “I gained a lot of weight during quarantine and Charlie (Melton, the strength coach) helped me out.” In the end, he credits Melton for helping him, “turn it into muscle, so it was one of the best things that happened to me basketball wise.”

That path from “somewhat fat, somewhat muscle,” was, in his words, “like two months of working out back to normal body fat levels. I’m probably lower body fat than I was before.”

This season, Mayer’s really improved as a cutter. Mayer says, “The weight has helped me because I can cut and (the defender) doesn’t bump me as much. I can also jump higher off two feet. Last year I had one or two dunks off one feet. I’ve had like three this year. It’s easier to finish off two, which opens up cutting opportunities for me.”

There was also a nice sequence late against Kansas State that shows Mayer’s mindset. The game’s outcome was assured as a Wildcat went up for a dunk. Mayer came over and offered a hard contest. With not many folks in Bramlage Coliseum I could hear Jerome Tang, Baylor’s associate head coach, shout his encouragement and excitement at Mayer for playing that hard until the end. Mayer says, “It’s just part of who I am. Everyone wants to compete the whole 40 minutes. I think any player would have done that.”

He also proved against the Wildcats that he’s improved as a playmaker. In the past, Mayer would look to shoot whenever he could. He says, “they’d be like, ‘Matt cut on this this,’ but I’d be like, ‘No, give me the ball.’ I was so stubborn. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to call for the ball a lot and be ridiculously aggressive, but it’s when we have an advantage not do it every time.” In that one play against Kansas State, Mayer ended up near the rim but surrounded by multiple defenders. In the past, Mayer might have taken a tough shot. But when LJ Cryer called for the ball, Mayer hit him for a triple:

Mayer’s doing a fantastic job balancing his spots this season. He says his biggest improvement this year has been, “Way better decision-making and obviously I’m stronger; all the coaches helped me. It felt like my freshman and sophomore year was being the role player. This year, it’s more, ‘we want you to be aggressive, but ‘we want to show you how to be aggressive.’ My freshman and sophomore year I felt like I was fighting, ‘do I deserve to be aggressive.’ But yeah, I do. This year it feels like, ‘we want you to be aggressive. We want you to do these things, but as long as you do, we’re okay.”

Being a good white basketball player inevitably means baffling comparisons to other white basketball players. That’s not actually a problem or social commentary. It’s just hysterical how wild and wrong some of these comparisons get. I asked Mayer about these comparisons, and he laughs and says, “I don’t understand why people would say Larry Bird. We play nothing alike. I heard Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, those are pretty solid. But Larry Bird doesn’t make any sense.”

I’ve long maintained this:

So I was pretty excited during the Illinois game when Taurean Prince tweeted out:

When I ask Mayer about that, he immediately knew about the tweet. He says, “I thought that was pretty cool, he’s a player I see a lot of similarities with myself. He didn’t play a lot his first two years. That third year, he was gunning for that sixth man. And I think we both have NBA potential, and he’s obviously there. And he’s a player I’ve long looked up to here.”

Mayer’s offensive rating has gone through the roof this season

The Oklahoma game might have been the perfect embodiment of what Mayer can do. He finished with 16 points on just eight shots. The most important thing in basketball is making shots, and Mayer sure did that:

He also did well defensively. At the end of the half, Mayer was tasked with defending one side of the floor when Oklahoma ran a pick-and-roll. When the Bears sent Tchamwa Tchatchoua a bit higher that left LJ Cryer to offer some resistance to the roll man. So Mayer had to make sure a cutter couldn’t get a basket, while also leaving himself enough time to recover to a 3-point shooter. He did that:

Mayer’s really improved his defensive instincts. That makes it easier to defensive rebound, which is why he ranks third among Big 12 players in defensive rebounding rate during league games. He’s also notched more steals, timing when he can stunt and leave his man. In one game turning swipe against Iowa State, he picked Solomon Young’s pocket, then drove down the court and found Tchamwa Tchatchoua. That led to free throws for Baylor:

That he’s achieved all of this from where he was in high school is pretty ridiculous. He says, “When I came to Baylor, I was going to be “Mr. Guy who shoots the ball.” People thought I was ridiculously confident. That was over compensating for a lack of confidence. People don’t know that.”

But Mayer's glad he went through that journey. From feeling like he wasn’t enough, to knowing he’s one of the best players on the floor. He’s right when he says, “I think it was good for me. I’m glad that I was stubbornly aggressive. That taught me which ways I should be aggressive for the next four years.”

And he sums it up well, “Now I’m averaging more points in 15 minutes a game on the No. 2 team in the country (than I was in high school). And it shows me how far I’ve come mentally...Now I’m a different player. I’ve changed my mindset since then. I was always a super talented basketball player—anyone could tell you that—it was a mindset change.”