Bennedict Mathurin didn’t hesitate when asked what the Indiana Pacers would be getting from him.
“My heart, man,” the 6th overall pick said on the ESPN broadcast after being selected. “They’re getting everything from me from the jump to the end.”
When watching Mathurin tape from Arizona this past season, his heart was evident. He plays with passion and celebrates with excitement on big plays whether by a teammate or himself. It feels safe to assume he loves the game.
As the highest Pacers draft pick since the late 1980s, that quality to go along with his work ethic and desire to improve are intangibles that added to his appeal as a top selection.
“I think one of the things that made the Pacers interested is that they feel like there’s an inferno burning inside this kid,” said Tommy Lloyd, Arizona’s head basketball coach during Mathurin’s sophomore season. “… He’s a super diligent guy. He really immersed himself in the process of becoming a great basketball player … he’s a self-starter and extremely motivated. I think his best days are ahead of him.”
Chad Buchanan, Pacers general manager, recently told the story of how Mathurin became the first prospect to workout twice in one day for the Pacers.
“He thrives on finding ways to improve,” Buchanan said. “When we brought him in for his workout, he did his workout in the morning and came back and did another workout on his own with coach (Rick) Carlisle. He thrives on getting better. He thrives on coaching, and I think that’s something that really stood out to us. We’ve never had a draft prospect come in and finish his workout and shower and go eat and come back and work out again, so that was a very good sign for us.”
Most of his appeal in terms of on-court skills are on the offensive end of the floor as it stands currently. Mathurin is a shooter, first and foremost. He made 38% of his 3-pointers in his college career while attempting five per game. Mathurin was a go-to option coming off of screens on out-of-bounds plays from the baseline and sideline, was always ready to shoot when spotting up off the ball, and showed at least one flash in his deep pull-up game in the NCAA tournament in his memorable 30-point performance against TCU.
These two clips above were part of the focus for where Mathurin wanted to improve by going back to school for another season. After being primarily a spot-up guy in his freshman year, he took on more responsibilities on the ball. He’s still got plenty of room to grow in terms of self-creation and playmaking as his handle, especially the left-hand, is very weak and he’s prone to lose control against even light resistance from the defense.
“Does he become more comfortable with the ball while being a multiple-dribble, multiple-direction guy, or is he going to kind of slide into a catch-and-shoot, drive-on-closeouts role? To me, both of them are great and that’s what excites me about him,”said Lloyd, who noted that Mathurin is just starting his development in the areas of ball-handling, decision making, and basketball IQ. “This isn’t a guy that necessarily needs to dominate the ball to become a successful NBA player, but I saw enough this year that if he continues to work on that stuff he could become that type of player.”
The good news for the Pacers is that he can easily slide into a comfortable role for his current skill set right away while playing alongside a primary ball-handler in Tyrese Haliburton while still further developing skills as a secondary creator. It’s easy to see why Mathurin and his agent saw Indiana as a good fit and pursued them throughout the entire draft process. He showed plenty of flashes in making simple reads but also made some questionable decisions with both passing and shot selection.
It’s not hard to imagine a similar pick and roll as that first play happening with Isaiah Jackson as the roller. It should be noted that even with increased responsibilities on offense, his turnovers per 100 possessions only increased slightly from 2.7 to 3 per game while his assists per 100 went up from 2.7 to 4.4. A positive sign for his development in that area.
One of the intriguing aspects of Mathurin’s fit with Haliburton is his off-ball movement, specifically his cuts to the rim. Arizona loves to backdoor teams and Mathurin was great at setting up his man and finishing from cuts. As with many things with his game, it will be interesting to see how much feel he has for when to cut versus how much was he able to simply execute terrific play design.
At minimum, he is adept at making these types of plays work and a familiar play from the days of Victor Oladipo and Domas Sabonis may make some sense for the Pacers to put something similar in for Mathurin and Haliburton.
Another obvious place where the young backcourt fits together is transition offense. Haliburton loves to push the pace and wants to get the ball moving quickly even after made shots. Mathurin is both capable of beating the entire defense down the floor with his speed and pushing the ball ahead himself and making the right, simple pass to an open teammate.
Other notable things that Mathurin adds on the offensive end come from his functional strength. He has some bully drives in him at times when driving right (not quite Lance Stephenson using his strength to bounce bodies away from his shot but could see that developing further). He attacks closeouts well and can take a hit and still finish. He shows a knack for grabbing offensive rebounds and fighting off box outs especially on missed free throws, and his strength helps him draw a lot of fouls near the basket as well as he got to the line 4.8 times per game in his final season with the Wildcats.
On the defensive end of the floor is where a lot of questions remain about Mathurin as an NBA player. It was somewhat difficult for me to have a comfortable idea of him as a defender. The words that came to mind while watching him were energy conservation. He called for a switch on every off-ball screen that I saw over three games. It’s certainly understandable why he would be going green defensively given his heavy minute load and large role on the other end.
I didn’t see a ton of on-ball or point of attack reps in these games but he is prone to getting caught straight up and getting blown by. However, there were also plays where other Arizona defenders would seem to let their man blow by them and Mathurin would switch onto the driving defender. So some of that may be the funky college defensive scheme. Any time Arizona went for a baseline double team or trapped out of a pick and roll, Mathurin rotated to the next guy or covered at the nail at the right time. He was also late to help as a low man and gave up a dunk that he couldn’t quite get to in time as well. He’s prone to napping on the perimeter and will lose track of his man. I saw him bait an opponent into an offensive foul off ball and at times he’ll be hyper engaged for an entire possession but then seem lost when scrambling.
When engaged on that end, Mathurin seems to do fairly well at following a scheme or set rules that his team had on that end at least in terms of rotations and knowing when his teammates were likely to double and what he needed to do when they did, but a lot of what he does on that end doesn’t feel instinctual. It’ll be something to keep an eye on during Summer League.
Games watched: TCU, Houston, Tennessee