On the Pacers’ developmental path for Bennedict Mathurin

A rookie season is often an uneven journey filled with bumps along the way and Bennedict Mathurin’s rookie year has been no exception to the rule. He’s shown plenty to be excited about to start his career and some areas for improvement. The Pacers see the highest level of potential in their prized rookie and the coaching staff has every intention of pushing him to get the best out of him. 

“We know he can score,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle recently said. “… We’re moving him in the direction of being a championship-caliber, two-way player. That’s it.”

These comments came after a 22-point performance against the Suns but were really directed at his previous game where he played a season-low 13 minutes, scored only 2 points, and didn’t get off the bench in the fourth quarter. Mathurin had fallen asleep on defense and gave up an easy backdoor; Carlisle immediately pulled him from the game after the error. It was the first of two quick exits for the rookie due to mistakes. The staff has been preaching attention to detail on defense to the whole team and that’s something that will help the sixth overall pick reach another level in terms of impact.

“With all the guys on our team, if we’re going to preach accountability, there has to be accountability,” Carlisle said. “There can’t just be unconditional minutes.”

Mathurin, who will play in the Rising Stars event during All-Star weekend, has bounced back with at least 14 points over his last four games and he’s played over 30 minutes in three of those as well. Even though he’s only played less than 20 minutes in a game twice all year, it was good to hear Carlisle, who is known to be prickly at times, detail his high expectations for what Mathurin can become as a player and why it may seem like he has a short leash at times–at least for my reactionary, worst-case-scenario brain. If they can get Mathurin to figure out how to harness his athleticism into defensive prowess with consistent focus, watch out.

He’s flashed occasionally on that end with some nice plays like this block. He forced an 8-second violation by himself in a recent game against the Jazz by pressuring the ball and then denying a pass and he’s been steadily improving at his rotations when the defense needs to scramble. He does struggle to fight through screens and like most of the team defending at the point of attack is not a strength of his though he generally gives good effort.

Mathurin has wowed with his ability to weave through obstacles like a driver in downtown Indianapolis avoiding potholes. From the beginning, he’s often been able to get to the rim and either hit difficult shots or draw fouls, but he’ll also occasionally look like he’s fallen into one of those infamous potholes and lose his dribble to minimal resistance from the defense.

Some of his finishes are simply incredible in traffic.

He’s also prone to tunnel vision with the sole intention of putting up a shot but is slowly making progress with making simple reads on his drives. This pass to sudden sharpshooter TJ McConnell in the corner stands out for a player who has one or fewer assists in 28 of his 60 career games as he’s averaged more turnovers (1.8) than assists (1.4) per game.

Developing his playmaking for others will be paramount to Mathurin reaching his ceiling as he’s already shown a superstar level ability in one area: the art of getting a whistle. 28.7% of his points come from free-throw attempts which is tied for 5th-highest in the league. An impressive feat for a rookie as the only people ahead of him are known free-throw merchants that have mastered the art of foul-drawing over many years and one player that’s blossomed into an All Star this season: Jimmy Butler, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Joel Embiid, and Trae Young.

The other thing to watch for over these last 22 games is how Mathurin’s 3-point percentage trends after the break. Over the last three months, he’s made just 24.8% of his attempts from long distance (35 of 141). This is after he made 40.3% in the first two months (48 of his first 119). You wonder how much the long grind of an NBA season has worn on the rookie’s legs as time has gone on since Mathurin is one of two Pacers that has played in every game this season.

If you look at 538’s RAPTOR metric, it’s mostly a sea of red for the first-year players in the league. Out of 17 rookies that have played over 700 minutes, only three of them have a positive value in Overall RAPTOR with each being carried by their strong defense. Mathurin ranks 7th and higher than all players picked before him except Keegan Murray sitting at 6th. 

538’s RAPTOR explained here.

Shocking I know, but rookies generally struggle in the NBA. That’s what has made Mathurin’s start to his career so impressive. Even with all the areas that he can still grow and improve, he’s already averaging 17.2 points in 28 minutes per game and having the best Pacers rookie season in a long, long time.

Looking ahead to a future partnership in the starting lineup between Tyrese Haliburton and Mathurin is enticing. Lineups with those two have only played teams even with a net rating of 0.0 so far but when you add recently-extended center Myles Turner to the duo they are lighting teams up with a net rating of 9.3 in 367 minutes. It’s the Pacers best 3-man grouping that’s played at least 250 minutes together.

“He’s a great listener. He’s come to me three or four times and reminded me, ‘Hey, Coach, you can coach me hard. I want to be coached hard. I want the truth. I want to get better. I want to be as good as I can be,’” Carlisle told The Ringer towards the beginning of the season. “These are qualities that you’re just dying to have young players present to you.”

With an attitude and work ethic like that, it should be fun seeing what Mathurin is able to add to his game over the next few years.

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