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Bennedict Mathurin’s Hot Start Is No Fluke

The Pacers’ highest draft pick in decades is already shooting like a proven vet. And history shows that a rookie that scores from the jump can keep scoring throughout their career.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’re a casual NBA fan, Friday night might be the only time you’ll get to watch the Pacers play all season. Indiana will play in Washington, in the first game of an ESPN doubleheader, but it’s the Pacers’ only scheduled game this season on ESPN, ABC, or TNT.

Non-Hoosiers should watch if they have the opportunity. You shouldn’t go the entire season without seeing rookie Bennedict Mathurin ball.

While no. 1 pick Paolo Banchero lights up scoreboards for the Magic, with the fourth-most points for any player through five career games in the 3-point era, Mathurin isn’t too far behind. Despite coming off the bench, the no. 6 pick is averaging 20.8 points through five games of his own.

“I’m grateful to be in the NBA,” Mathurin said this week, “but also, I want to end up being one of the best players that ever played the game.”

He made that statement with a matter-of-fact tone, not braggadocio, in his very first sentence of an interview. It’s not the first time his supreme confidence has shone through. Right after he was drafted, he made a splash by saying LeBron James needed to “show me he’s better than me.” (Mathurin soon walked back that comment, offering proper deference to the King.)

Recently, the former Arizona swingman has focused on making splashes on the court. The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year excelled in summer league and preseason play, averaging 19 and 20 points per game, respectively. In his regular-season start, only 33 other players in NBA history have scored so many points in their first five games.

“When we drafted him, we knew he was a player that had great ability, who had an NBA shooting stroke and tremendous upside and a very high ceiling,” coach Rick Carlisle said Wednesday, ahead of a loss to the Bulls. “But I don’t think anybody expected him to have progressed to this point after four games.”

Mathurin’s shooting stroke has been a thing of beauty. Despite taking almost all his 3s from above the break, rather than in the shorter corners, he’s nailed 39 percent of his 3-point attempts, including rainbows off the catch and pull-ups with a defender contesting.

Yet the most impressive element of Mathurin’s game is his ability to score at the basket. In the draft, he profiled as a 3-and-D wing, but the requirements of such a role have evolved. With defenses becoming more sophisticated, 3-and-D wings now must be able to attack closeouts and create on the move.

Mathurin’s already there, just a week into his NBA career. The 20-year-old flashes a subtle yet effective pump-and-go game to rocket past rotating defenders into the lane.

And the confidence that led him to issue a challenge to LeBron also powers him to challenge elite rim protectors like Kristaps Porzingis, whom Mathurin bested for his first career bucket …

… and Joel Embiid, whom Mathurin tested on several drives when the Pacers visited Philadelphia.

Mathurin is a force in transition, and that same urgency boosts his half-court abilities, too. When Mathurin catches a pass anywhere in the frontcourt, he wastes no time or energy before attacking; he moves with a purpose, with the self-assurance that he’ll be able to slither around congestion in the paint or just embrace the contact and finish through it.

That aggression means he sometimes forces contested looks or takes unnecessarily tricky shots from the floater range. But those setbacks don’t stop him from trying again, or from barreling right back into the paint on the next possession. “I don’t think he lets misses faze him,” teammate Tyrese Haliburton said, “but that’s what the best scorers do.”

Most rookies—even likely future All-Stars—struggle to generate many free throw opportunities. Not Mathurin. Banchero is the only rookie with more free throw attempts so far this season, and extending back to the past five rookie classes, the only players with more are superstars:

Most Free-Throw Attempts by a Rookie, Last Five Seasons

Player Season FTA/G
Player Season FTA/G
Paolo Banchero 2022-23 9.0
Zion Williamson 2019-20 7.4
Luka Doncic 2018-19 6.7
Bennedict Mathurin 2022-23 5.8
Trae Young 2018-19 5.1
Ja Morant 2019-20 4.6
RJ Barrett 2019-20 4.5

On a rate basis, Mathurin is averaging 3.9 free throw attempts per every 10 field goal attempts. That’s an excellent ratio in the context of other touted rookie guards and wings. Haliburton, Indiana’s best player, was at 0.9 FTA per 10 FGA in his rookie season. Last year’s no. 1 pick, Cade Cunningham of the Pistons, was at 1.6. Rising young stars Anthony Edwards, Franz Wagner, Scottie Barnes, LaMelo Ball, and Jalen Green were all in the low-to-mid 2s.

Those trips to the line mean Mathurin can score at a fairly efficient clip even when his jump shot isn’t falling. On Wednesday in Chicago, he didn’t make a 3-pointer for the first time in his brief NBA career, but still scored 15 points on 11 field goal attempts because he added so many free throws. Overall, he has a 59.3 percent true shooting rate, best among rookies with at least 25 field goal attempts. For context, the overall league TS% is 56.5 percent.

(Banchero, to his immense credit, has the most free throw attempts through five games of any player this century. And if he somehow manages to maintain his 9.0 attempts per game over the whole season, he’ll have the highest average for a rookie since David Robinson.)

Mathurin is much more of a work in progress when he’s not trying to score. He makes quick decisions in pass-pass-pass sequences, and can leverage the threat of his shot to open space for a teammate. But he doesn’t look as comfortable in set plays: In a small sample, the Pacers have scored just 0.71 points per possession when Mathurin receives a ball screen, one of the lowest marks in the league, according to Second Spectrum.

And his defense is still a rough draft, as Mathurin himself will admit. Asked about where he seeks improvement, the first item he notes is his defensive rotations and making sure he’s proactive in shading to the paint to cover for his bigs.

Carlisle said Mathurin has already made huge leaps overall since he was drafted. “He’s a great listener,” Carlisle said. “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.’ These are qualities that you’re just dying to have young players present to you.”

A future-oriented outlook is an unusual position for Indiana. Mathurin represented the Pacers’ first top-10 pick since they selected Paul George 10th in 2010, and their first top-six pick since 1988. But at least for now, their path back to relevance travels through the backcourt, where two players with jersey numbers 0 and 00 are building blocks for the future. The aggressive, score-first Mathurin and crafty, pass-first Haliburton offer ideal complementary mindsets, both supporting each other’s strengths and compensating for the other’s weaknesses.

Haliburton has also played well this season, averaging 23 points and 10 assists through the Pacers’ opening games; dating back to his trade from Sacramento last February, he’s averaging 9.6 assists per game as a Pacer. But even Haliburton, who began impressing almost immediately upon arriving in the NBA, didn’t reach 27 points in any game—as Mathurin did last week—until late March of his rookie season.

Mathurin said he’s not paying attention to his impressive historical standing—which includes having scored more points through his first three games than any NBA rookie since Jerry Stackhouse in 1995, or matching Pacers legend Reggie Miller in early-career production off the bench. Those sorts of plaudits are “a poison,” he said.

But there’s a saying that’s most often applied in baseball: Once you display a skill, you own it. It means that certain feats can’t be faked; once a pitcher throws a 100 mph fastball, for instance, he’ll always have the potential to do so again.

The same philosophy applies here, as well: An NBA rookie can’t fake a hot start. Almost every other player with at least 100 points through five career games enjoyed a lengthy, productive career, as long as they stayed healthy. Mathurin has a long way to go until he reaches that level of NBA success. But his ambitions look closer today than they did just a couple of weeks ago.