Matt Coleman nearly became a Duke Blue Devil. Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns, however, provided something Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t — the keys to the offense and a longstanding relationship built around trust.
When Smart began recruiting Coleman as a middle school talent, he had no clue that the Virginia native wouldn’t be remaining home to play for what was then Smart’s VCU Rams. It’s quite possible that Smart, himself, wasn’t aware that he’d no longer be in Virginia by the time Coleman was able to call him coach, either.
Yet, now a freshman at Texas, Coleman not only calls Smart his coach, but his family.
“It’s like family-oriented,” Coleman said of his relationship with the ‘Horns head coach. “I’ve known Shaka since the eighth grade. He stayed true to his message since day one while he was at VCU that we need you to be the leader. You have the keys. Shaka has always been a great guy. He’s very genuine. It’s more than basketball with him. He wants me to be a great man off the court. On the court, he wants me to produce and be that extension of him on the court.”
As Coleman detailed, Smart did, in fact, stay true to his word.
In what he called “an appetizer” as to what it’s like to play for Smart, Coleman was among those on Smart’s Team USA U-18 roster that won a gold medal in Chile; the same roster that included the more highly-ranked Trae Young, who’s now facilitating his own fast-paced offense at Oklahoma. It was Coleman, however, who served as Smart’s starting point guard. Whether that was a ploy in what became a competitive recruiting battle with the Blue Devils is no longer relevant, but it sent the message loud and clear — Coleman is the one Smart trusts to orchestrate his offense.
Nearly a year and a half later, nothing has changed.
The former four-star floor general has since exchanged his Oak Hill Academy threads for those of the burnt orange variety and the Frank Erwin Center is his new playground.
The team that currently brandishes the ‘Texas’ across its chest each time out is his.
“Individually, I feel like I know this is my team,” Coleman said. “They look at me as the point guard and for me to make plays for others and for me to make it easier for the other guys on the court around me.
Smart, who, months after earning Coleman’s commitment landed the most highly-touted talent of his entire career in five-star big man Mohamed Bamba, echoes such sentiments.
“He relayed that message,” Coleman said of Smart’s confirmation that Texas is his team. “He was like you have the power to let guys know if they’re out of line, tell them; when they’re doing well, tell them; being that extension of him.”
“Coach Smart could call someone in for a little meeting and talk to them, get to know what’s on their mind. He’s like you have the power to do all that. You have the power to stop practice if something’s not going the way you like it. You have the power to tell them, ‘Hey guys, we need to get on track.’ He’s really kept the same message he always has since day one, and while recruiting me and now that I'm here, he’s reinforcing that” Coleman added. “Matt, you have the opportunity to be you, basically.”
Thus far, Coleman being himself has resulted in a 10:1 assist-to-turnover ratio throughout the ‘Horns first three appearances, along with an efficient 53 percent field goal percentage.
More notably, though, Coleman being himself as the ‘Horns floor general of the future, in turn, allows the talent surrounding him — Bamba, Andrew Jones, Dylan Osetkowski and Kerwin Roach II — to be themselves, which is exactly what Smart wants from his coach on the court.
“[Coleman’s] number one duty at that position is to be about the other four guys on the floor around him and make them better,” Smart said.
A beneficial byproduct of Coleman’s natural tendencies as a pass-first point guard and following suit with Smart’s aspirations is that despite being just three games into his tenure at Texas, his teammates already trust him.
Coleman credited Smart allowing him to have the reins to the offense as to why he’s already looked upon as a leader for the Longhorns.
“With the help of coach Smart and him relaying the message and showing in practice [by] giving me the ball and him allowing me to make plays; plays that he said they couldn't make last year,” Coleman said of how his teammates learned to trust him. “Me having the ability to just be me. I couldn’t do that without my teammates because you have guys like Andrew Jones and Snoop (Kerwin Roach) that are unbelievable in transition. You have a guy like Dylan Osetkowski, who is a point-forward with really high IQ. And you have a guy like Mo who is just Mo, a gift from God. It makes the game easier for me. They trusted me since day one.”
The tale of the tape will affirm all the praise that’s been pointed in Coleman’s direction thus far.
It’s quite clear that when he’s running the show, Texas is a different team, and for the better, as evident in the ‘Horns 3-0 record on the strength of an 87-point scoring edge. As Smart noted, though, Coleman is far from a finished product, which echoes as music to the burnt orange nation’s ears, considering Coleman already looks the part of a polished product in comparison to last season’s point guard productivity.
“What Matt has to do is continue to improve with his ability to get his teammates shots,” Smart said. “As a floor general, as the point guard, his job first and foremost is to put other guys on our team in position to score, not only with his passing, but with leadership, with talk, with organization.”
Smart added that to this point, Coleman has done, “a pretty good job of that, but there's significant room for growth and he's got to keep his eyes on the prize in terms of what matters most at the position, which is not him scoring."
Smart isn’t the only one setting the bar high for his flashy freshman floor general, either.
Despite the tremendous efficiency though three games, both as a facilitator and a scorer, Coleman isn’t content with his consistency as he aims to enhance his level of play to match the competition that’s soon to come.
“I would like to see my play improve,” Coleman said of how he’d critique his performance thus far. “My play as in being more vocal, being more consistent in making the right play and being more consistent in getting other guys involved. Doing more,” he added. “Setting myself to a higher standard for myself and my teammates.”
Freshman. Point guard. Leader. Trusted teammate. Matt Coleman.