By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
Like most local athletes in the public high school system, this year’s lack of extra-curricular activities has been a bummer for Vlad Matovic.
But the Grade 12 student at Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute found a silver lining in a season during which his Golden Gaels were supposed to contend for a WCSSAA senior boys basketball crown.
The 6’7” forward found a temporary home with the United Leadership Academy this winter, a group of players primarily from Sir Allan McNab High School in Hamilton who have similarly been affected by a lack of high school extracurricular sports.
Last weekend, that temporary union landed Matovic a prime-time spot playing against one of the biggest basketball prospects to come out of Canada and in front of thousands of fans at McMaster University’s Burridge Gym.
Lined up against Huntington Prep’s Andrew Wiggins, a Vaughan native projected to go first overall in the 2014 NBA draft, was Matovic, a kid who two years ago barely cracked the 6’ barrier.
And, boy, was he nervous.
“They had Wiggins guarding me, so I felt a lot of pressure and I didn’t really know how to handle it,” Matovic said, cracking a smile as he spoke. “I wasn’t really thinking about anything except maybe pass the ball and get it to an open teammate.
“It was really nerve-racking because there were thousands of people (not to mention members of the national media) watching and I’ve never played in an atmosphere like that. But it was a good experience and it felt like we were playing at the professional level.”
Ask Matovic two years ago if he could have imagined playing in a game like this, which was hyped as Wiggins’ last high school appearance in Canada with his West Virginia-based Huntington Prep team, and he would have thought you were crazy.
As a first-time Grade 10 starter on his Golden Gaels junior team, Matovic was a fraction of the young man he is today. Back then, he had yet to hit a major growth spurt that added seven inches to his lanky frame in a span of two years.
Even last season had its ups and downs. Matovic, a 6’4” Grade 11 student then, was still getting used to his newfound height and working on improving his finish and vertical leap, which he says has increased by 10 inches since last year.
“Now he guards the biggest and best guys in the league, at least when we were playing,” said Cameron Heights head coach Nazim Ramzan, who attended the game in Hamilton. “But against Wiggins, you could tell he was nervous; it was like his Grade 11 year all over again.
“But Vlad took the right approach. He tried to go right at him (Wiggins) and block him.”
By the end of the afternoon, Matovic wasn’t all too impressed with his own performance, which included a pair of quick fouls in the first half and a long sit until the second.
But it could have been worse. Matovic could have been dunked on, like some of his ULA teammates. Instead, he watched Wiggins step back and drain a three-point basket in five minutes of covering the 6’8” phenom.
“He’s going up against a kid who is going to be an NBA all-star someday,” said ULA coach Dwayne Washington, who invited Matovic to a tryout on the advice of a Canadian basketball editor. “Giving up a three-pointer isn’t too bad.”
As for all the hype surrounding the 17-year-old Wiggins, who some are calling the best high school prospect since Lebron James, Matovic said it’s well deserved.
“He’s really skilled and athletic, and he’s refined his skills by playing against the best in his age group,” Matovic said. “When we played him, it felt like he wasn’t trying and was doing everything with ease.
“He did anything he wanted.”