When Matt Mooney was a Chicago-area youngster taking in an occasional NBA game with his family, his dad advised him to keep his eyes on Kirk Hinrich.
“He told me he was very fundamentally sound,” Mooney said recently during a stop-over in Sioux Falls for a workout at the Sanford Pentagon. “He’d make the open shots, he’d make the right plays — he was really a tough player, really tough on D.”
So when Mooney, the former University of South Dakota star who is fresh off a memorable Final Four run with Texas Tech, was taking passes from Hinrich at the Pentagon, there was some history behind it.
“That’s something he’s talked to me about,” said Mooney, who had a series of workouts with Hinrich, Sanford POWER Basketball Academy‘s lead specialist, last offseason. “Playing defense is just really being a competitor. You’re keeping someone from scoring, you’re keeping their team from scoring by playing good help defense.”
Known for his quick hands and long arms while igniting a surge in men’s basketball at South Dakota for two seasons, Mooney used a graduate transfer opportunity to play his senior year at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders then went 31-7, won a Big 12 title and advanced to the NCAA championship game.
In his lone season, Mooney averaged 11.3 points, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals and was honored as part of the NCAA’s all-tournament team. He was also part of the Big 12 All-Defense team and was named second-team All-Big 12 overall.
Had there been any doubts about how his abilities would translate from mid-major star to major-college cog, he quickly dispensed them in his time in Lubbock, Texas. After scoring 1,271 total points and earning first-team All-Summit twice in his two seasons at USD, he quickly became a necessary spoke in the wheel for a program destined for the Final Four berth.
“I thoroughly enjoyed watching Matt play this year,” Hinrich said. “Getting to know him the last year and a half has been great. You enjoy working out that type of guy; he’s a social kid, and he obviously wants to get better — just a pure joy getting to know a kid like that.”
Mooney’s next step
Now it’s time for another move upward. Mooney has worked out for more than a half-dozen NBA teams since ending his college career. He has had workouts with Minnesota, Chicago and Cleveland in a week alone. A short break between stops in Minnesota and Chicago warranted a visit to Sioux Falls to reconnect with Hinrich.
“It was a quick trip down,” Mooney said. “I love it here. I’ll always come back here. At the same time, I can get some work in with Kirk between NBA workouts and stay sharp.”
It has been a heck of a ride. Under Coach Chris Beard, who won a competitive high-profile recruiting battle to bring Mooney in for his last year of eligibility, the Red Raiders established themselves as a prominent team early in the 2018-19 season. Then when the NCAA tournament began, they just kept winning.
For Mooney, that climb was highlighted by a 22-point effort in the Final Four semifinal win over Michigan State in Minneapolis.
“I’m not sure I would have gotten the workouts I’ve had if we didn’t make the run we made,” he said. “I was hoping I’d get a couple for playing alongside (Jarrett) Culver this year. There were eyes on me because there were scouts and GMs and people at every single practice, let alone every game we played in the Big 12.”
Advice from a pro
Hinrich himself, while hardly lacking for credentials when he made the transition from a hall-of-fame collegiate career at Kansas to the NBA, executed a pre-draft workout in 2003 with Chicago that many credit with vaulting him from a late first-round pick to the Bulls taking him at No. 7.
As with so many other experiences pertaining to basketball, Hinrich has been there.
“The one thing Matt really has working for him is that he’s a real mature kid — he gets it,” Hinrich said. “He gets it in terms that he knows who he is and he plays to his strengths. This month and a half is such a grind for a lot of guys. They have to be able to muster up the energy, workout after workout, and still show teams their ability. That’s a tough process, but Matt’s mentally tough.”
Mooney is realistic about the possibility of hearing his name called June 20, the day of the NBA Draft, but he retains the distinctive level of resolve to succeed that marked his time at USD and then at Texas Tech. It’s all about making the progression and proceeding with confidence.
Typically the introductory NBA workout experience includes several other prospects performing at the same time. It can be a stressful day, but only if you let it.
“It might be [stressful] for some guys, but I just try to go in there and leave it all on the floor,” Mooney said. “Have no regrets at the end of the workout. Go hard. A few of the workouts I don’t think I shot it that great or made the plays I could have made, but I played hard, and I had good energy. That’s all I can do.”