As the Adelaide 36ers battled Sydney in their opening game of the 2015 NBL Blitz, Coach Joey Wright was laying the foundations for the upcoming season. The man with more NBL experience than any other active coach was visibly relaxed. It was, after all, just a pre-season game.
You’d be forgiven for not realising that it meant a lot more to one of his players. It was not just a pre-season game to him.
For one of the Sixers’ new recruits, it was the culmination of more than 14 months of rehab and recovery, setbacks and more rehab, just to get to this point. It’s been a long road.
For Matt Hodgson, it was a pretty special moment as he made, effectively, his NBL debut.
“It was awesome,” Hodgson told Downtown in an exclusive interview. “I was a little bit nervous obviously coming to the Blitz. To have the chance and the opportunity to play again, especially at this level, I was really grateful and really excited about it.”
The chance to play at this level has not come easy for the 23-year old Queensland native. After what was considered a minor meniscus tear at the time (at the start of his Senior year in College), Hodgson has had one hell of a time getting fully healthy again.
Misdiagnosed or pressured back too early, he’s not one to point fingers, but acknowledges that he effectively played out his Senior year at Saint Mary’s on a knee that hadn’t healed properly yet. Unbeknownst to him, he was doing more damage with every game.
“I spent the whole year basically grinding up my knee, just putting a lot of pressure on it.”
When he came back to Australia and signed on as a development player with Melbourne United, he wasn’t passing any of the health tests. After Hodgson told them about his knee injury, they wanted to have a closer look.
Hodgson was playing SEABL with the Frankston Blues at the time and playing quite well (he averaged 24.3 points and 9.7 rebounds over his final 3 games that season), but was told by United that he needed to have another surgery to repair the meniscus properly and smooth out some cartilage. He would need five months to recover and that ended his season with Frankston, immediately.
The operation went well, but Hodgson’s road to recovery was not going to be straightforward. Persistent swelling required repeated sessions to drain fluid, inject the knee with PRP and wait for it to subside. Hodgson believes he had a reaction to the PRP as after months of this treatment, the swelling persisted. Finally an alternate method was trialled with better results.
Unfortunately for Hodgson, it was now January 2015 and he still hadn’t played a minute of action with Melbourne. The swelling started to subside, but he needed time to strengthen his knee after months of inactivity.
“I had to strengthen my knee a lot and there was no way I was going to be able to strengthen it enough to be able to play in a short period of time, without it swelling up again.”
Hodgson missed the entire season and, now too old to be a development player again, faced an uphill battle to prove himself worthy of an NBL roster spot. He spent the off-season rehabbing and went back to Frankston.
His knee wasn’t really strong enough, however, and it showed. In limited minutes, he averaged 6.8 points, 5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
Thankfully, former Melbourne coach Chris Anstey called Joey Wright and convinced him to closely consider signing Hodgson.
“I think he’s an outstanding player and I think Adelaide have got themselves an absolute bargain,” Anstey told Downtown. “I think he’ll be, you know especially when he gets game fit, he’s gonna be a hell of a player.”
Wright, as he discussed after that Kings game, took Anstey at his word and brought Hodgson in.
“I didn’t have any other options,” explained Hodgson. “I was ecstatic at the chance to go to Adelaide because I watched Joey when he was coaching with the Bullets, and always loved his system and always heard good things about Joey from guys like Brendan Teys who I’m good friends with.
“I always had a lot of respect for Joey, but it was either play for Joey or nothing. That was my only offer and I was ecstatic to take it.”
Wright has taken Hodgson under his wing and is allowing him the time and freedom to work his way back into game shape and getting a feel for the game again, after so long away from the court.
“He just wants me to go out there and have fun,” Hodgson said. “His biggest thing is he just wants me to mentally be able to get through mistakes and enjoy the game and that’s his biggest coaching thing with me so far. He says as long as I do that then everything should come up positive.”
Hodgson played just 12 ½ minutes on Thursday night, but made his presence known with 8 points and 8 rebounds as the first big off the bench for the 36ers. Going against the likes of Julian Khazzouh, Tommy Garlepp and Angus Brandt, that’s quite an impact and helped the Sixers win.
He backed that up with 7 points, 5 rebounds and a perfect 3-3 from the field in 14 minutes against Melbourne in a narrow loss. Hodgson was aggressive offensively from the outset, taking it right to NBA veteran Hakim Warrick on the low block, where he utilised his height for a nice lefty baseline hook.
“Yeah it was cool. I was actually a bit worried he [Warrick] was going to try and jump up and block it. But it was good. I was just trying to be aggressive.”
Wright has been encouraging Hodgson to use the warm-up games as a way to get some confidence on the offensive end.
“He is still limited in what he’s able to do physically. Right now he’s only 10-12 minutes, I think we played him a little too much tonight,” Wright said after the Melbourne game. “But when he gets stronger and fitter he’s going to be a force for us.”
“Joey’s been great,” Hodgson said excitedly. “I’m free to make mistakes and he’s kinda let me play through it. He knows there will be a little bit of rust on there after being out for 12 months. But he’s been awesome with that. He’s given me confidence so when I’m out there, I’m not really thinking too much, I’m just kind of playing.”
Wright knows the impact that Hodgson can have on the defensive end of the floor.
“Matt has a huge upside and he may be the best shot-blocker since Simon Dwight, as long as he can stay healthy” Wright said before the Blitz.
Hodgson knows where his bread is buttered.
“The big thing for us and how I think I can help this team is just being able to protect the rim and rebound; be a defensive presence, you know like Schensch [Luke Schenscher] was last year and hopefully be able to build on that.”
The 7-footer’s upside hasn’t been tapped yet as Hodgson played a limited role under Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s. Anstey took some steps to build on it when Hodgson first came to Melbourne.
“The first thing I said to him when I worked him out when he came to town was ‘What weren’t you allowed to do in College?’, and he gave me a list of things and I said ‘Well that’s where we’re starting’,” recalled Anstey.“I was kind of glued to the bench at Saint Mary’s, but I still enjoyed it,” Hodgson acknowledged. “I was still able to learn a lot. About how to keep your head up when you’re not playing well, how to keep confident when things aren’t going your way… I think it’ll help me be a better pro.”
The mental strength when not playing has been crucial for Hodgson throughout his recovery and he never wavered in his focus. It’s been a long road to get back to this point but when you’re faced with only one option – to work hard – it keeps things in perspective. Hodgson hasn’t allowed the process to get him down.
“I laugh a lot off the court and joke around,” Hodgson said almost sheepishly. “But I take the game and the process to get better very seriously. I’ve stuck through all these bad times.”
It’s going to continue to be a process for Hodgson to feel comfortable each and every game. We saw some of that as he got frustrated in the Sixers’ final game in Townsville, but at least he’s on the right path. He’s focused, determined and while he needs to get his game legs back, he’s feeling no ill-effects so far with his knee.
“It feels fine,” Hodgson told Downtown. “The rehab is going to be a continual process this year, but it’s held up amazingly considering the sudden increase in load that it’s undergone.”
The big fella knows what his role is on this team, but also thinks he can surprise some people.
“I just hope to establish a bit of a name for myself. I’d like to show people I can do a little more offensively than they saw at College.”
He started to show some of that on the weekend, albeit in a limited capacity, but he has people taking notice now.
“He can do more than he showed on the weekend,” Anstey said. “He’s going to have an impact in this league straight away.”
It’s been a long road with plenty of twists and turns, but Hodgson is finally getting the chance to showcase what kind of pro he can be.
When asked what NBL fans should know about him that they don’t already know, Hodgson spoke from the heart.
“I think these fans don’t know that Matt Hodgson has some skills and can play because they haven’t been able to see it yet. Hopefully by the end of the year, they’re going to see that he’s actually a pretty productive player, he’s actually got some stuff to his game that we didn’t know he had.”
After what he showed in limited minutes at the Blitz, we’re seeing that already.