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Q&A: Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin on the Pacers’ Suddenly Bright Future

What some thought would be a lost season in Indiana has turned into a surprisingly exciting youth movement. We spoke to Indy’s rising backcourt stars to hear how the team is fast-tracking its rebuild.

The Indiana Pacers are off to a surprising start this season, sitting at .500 through 10 games. By no means are they contending, but the emergence of Tyrese Haliburton as a potential All-Star and Bennedict Mathurin as a Rookie of the Year candidate have perhaps accelerated Indiana’s rebuild more than anyone could have anticipated.

Haliburton is averaging 21.7 points on 46.3 percent shooting from 3 while dishing out 9.7 assists and only 3.2 turnovers per game. He’s one of the league’s brightest players, with an innate feel for playmaking and efficient scoring. The 22-year-old point guard is complemented by a power guard in Mathurin, who is dropping 19.4 points per game off the bench. Mathurin, 20, can pass, too, but his primary role is to score; he’s shooting 40.3 percent from 3 and living at the free throw line with 5.9 attempts per game. At 6-foot-6, he provides additional size next to Haliburton’s 6-foot-5 frame, giving Indiana a large and talented backcourt that could anchor its future.

To learn more about why Indiana’s duo has worked so well together out of the gate, I recently chatted with both of them at the same time. Below is a condensed version of our conversation. Click here for the full interview in video form.

Why They’ve Clicked Instantly

The Pacers have the NBA’s seventh-best offensive rating this season, and when their young backcourt duo share the floor the team posts a 115.4 offensive rating, the highest of all their backcourt combinations. In those situations, Mathurin posts a significantly higher scoring efficiency than when Haliburton isn’t on the floor. So I asked them: What is it about the dynamic between you two that seems to work so well?

Haliburton: We play off each other well. I think his game complements mine in the sense of, I play a lot of spread pick-and-roll where I’m attacking downhill or getting the floater, but also facilitating out of it. When teams have to tag on the big or come over to help on me, I can give it to him on the second side. He’s such a downhill force getting to the cup and scoring the basketball, he’s really hard to guard on the second side of actions. So, I think naturally, it just is a good fit.

Mathurin: He’s a great point guard who gets to the bucket whenever he wants. When the defense is hard on him, I’m trying to make his job a little bit easier. So, just being on the wing with him and having him just pass me the ball is a great thing.

A lot of teams, you see their two-guard backcourts or two-star presences, and it’s “your turn, my turn.” But with you guys, it seems to be a lot of cohesion.

Mathurin: A player like Ty, he is really good with the ball in his hands, so I don’t need to have the ball as much in my hands. I’m trying to do the stuff, cutting and just the other stuff, just so we can just be great on the court together.

Haliburton: Yeah, it’s flowed really well. We probably played only a couple minutes together in training camp. I don’t think we shared the court at all in the preseason, if not longer than two minutes. So I think we were just eager to play with each other. And it just fits well. I was once in a role like him as well where I played on the ball in college, came to the NBA, didn’t really play on the ball as much my rookie year. So, there’s times where I see him, like I used to be like, “Hey, let me feel it a little bit,” you know what I mean? So, we just got to get the ball moving so he can get touches, I get touches, and we could just naturally play that way.

Sharing Is Caring

Haliburton and Mathurin had comparable college experiences. Haliburton played two years at Iowa State. Mathurin played two years at Arizona. Both of them were primarily secondary options who played off the ball as freshmen before handling greater responsibility as sophomores. Many guards grow up with the ball in their hands at all levels, and then it becomes a struggle to contribute without it. But their experience doing both seems to have helped their chemistry early on.

Haliburton: I think it’s a benefit, especially because the NBA is so on-ball-driven. Everybody wants the ball in their hands all the time. So, if you got guys that are comfortable playing off the ball, it really works well. I’ve obviously transitioned to a guy who’s on the ball more than off the ball. But it’s still easy when Ben’s got it going, or when anyone on our team’s got it going and to be kind of spaced, be ready to shoot, things like that. It’s a harder transition to move to have to play off the ball than it is to play on the ball. Because naturally, everybody at some point in high school or college had the ball in their hands all the time. So I think it’s a benefit for both of us.

Bennedict, what’s one thing you’ve learned from Tyrese?

Mathurin: Sometimes, when I think you don’t see me, you see me all the time. Couple times I was running, and then a pass just came in front of me. I didn’t think he was going to pass it. But then he has a great vision but also his IQ is unmatched. He has a great feeling for the game, and he is really unselfish. He wants to win and he wants to help his team win.

Tyrese, what’s one thing you’ve taught Bennedict since he joined the Pacers?

Haliburton: Well, I would say our relationship is getting better. I don’t remember what game it was, but maybe Detroit or San Antonio, where I went up to him after the game, he had a good game, went up to him, was like, “Yo, if you feel like you haven’t touched the ball in a little bit, just come tell me. You can talk to me however you want. I have enough respect for you that you can say whatever you want to me, and I understand that it’s in the heat of battle, it’s in basketball. Say whatever you want.” … So I think naturally, it’s hard when you come to the NBA to walk up to somebody and be like, “Yo, give me the ball,” you know what I mean? Especially as a rookie. But I’m cool with it. We both just want to win.

Ben, have you had to tell Tyrese, “Give me the damn ball?”

Mathurin: Oh no, I think it happened one time, but I know he’s not doing it to piss me off or anything. He’s a point guard. He’s trying to get everybody involved. I think one time I went to him and I was like, “Yo, you probably have to run a play. It’s been a little minute,” but I don’t ever take it personal. I know he is trying to get everybody involved.

Haliburton: His career-high night in Brooklyn, he should’ve got more touches in the third, and I know that. And so it’s like, now I got to go watch film, figure out how I can get him more touches in the third. He had 30. He should’ve had 40.

Getting Coached Up

My colleague Zach Kram wrote a great analysis of Mathurin last month, and it included this telling quote about Mathurin from Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle: “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.’ These are qualities that you’re just dying to have young players present to you.” So I asked Mathurin and Haliburton about their desires to be coached hard and the conversation got into why both want to be great:

Mathurin: We had practice yesterday, and then I wasn’t going too hard, and I told him, “I don’t take anything personal. If I don’t do this right, just tell me,” and I feel like today, he made sure he was on me a little bit. He told me to run harder and to do stuff at a good pace.

Haliburton: He’s the only guy I’ve ever seen watch film with the head coach in the back of the plane. He’ll watch all of his. I watch film with our video guys and stuff. He goes back there with Coach and watches his film after games, good or bad. And that just shows he’s hungry, wants to get after it. You don’t see guys in the NBA do that. We’re young guys and we both just want to be great. But you see the hunger that he has.

You say you want to be great, but there’s a lot of players making tens of millions or even hundreds of millions, and it’s easy to become complacent when you’re making all that money. What’s behind that desire to be great?

Haliburton: When you’re a kid, you want to play this game, you just want to have fun, you want to win, right? You want to win in anything. You’re playing knockout in the driveway, playing one-on-one with your older brother, playing at open gyms and pickups. You just want to win. That’s what basketball’s about: winning. And that’s the challenge of having to be a high draft pick or a highly touted guy in the NBA. It’s your job to help get teams over the hump, to get teams back to where they want to be. And obviously, the Pacers are used to winning and we’re just trying to get back there.

But I think [NBA assistant coach] Rico Hines said it best to me when I was a rookie, he was like, “I’m going to be honest: Money? Fuck money. Everybody has that.” You know what I mean? Everybody can do what they want, take care of their family, live how they want to live in some way or another. “What’s going to put you over the hump? What do you want more than that? That doesn’t matter.” So that’s the biggest thing for me is how can I separate myself? And I think in basketball, you want to leave your legacy on the game in some way. We’ve all done that in our hometowns. I hope 100 years from now, I hope back in Oshkosh, they’re like, “Tyrese was the first guy, this is what he did, blah blah blah,” but now, how can I leave my legacy on a bigger scale, not just in my hometown, but in the state, in the country, around the world. You want to have that lasting legacy because this is what you do. Everybody wants to be great at their craft, just like you want to be great at yours.

Mathurin: Growing up, my older brother, he used to win all the time. So that really made me who I am, always trying to win. I just kept it growing up. I just felt like I was a winner and I always wanted to win everything. So, I put the work in. I feel like if I put the work in everything is going to take care of itself.

Haliburton: Before you can prove anyone wrong, you’ve got to prove yourself right, and what you believe you can do. We both have a ton of confidence in ourselves, and we both feel like we can be even better than what we’re playing right now. And so you want to prove that to yourself. But everybody else, that follows. I’m sure [Mathurin] feels like he should have been drafted higher. I felt that same way. We both have points in our life where we feel like we are overlooked in some way, so we want to be able to prove that we were the right decision: It should have been us. But everything happens for a reason. We’re here now.

The GM Survey

Before every season, publishes a GM survey. This season, 79 percent of NBA GMs predicted Paolo Banchero would win Rookie of the Year. Seventeen percent said Keegan Murray, and 3 percent said Jabari Smith. All good choices. But nobody said Mathurin. He views it as a source of motivation.

Mathurin: Oh, man. Well, it’s not something new. I’m going to be honest. Since Arizona even started with Pac-12 Player of the Year, nobody said I was going to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year. I feel like it’s great. It’s not going to change anything for me, personally. I’m still going to be doing what I do. But it’s juice. It gets me juiced. It’s what gets me going.

When you say it’s juice to have people not believe in you, is it also juice to see the results on the court? My colleague Zach Kram pointed out that you’re only the fifth player since 1980 to score at least 72 points in your first three games, joining Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse, and Isiah Thomas. Does that push you even harder?

Mathurin: It’s great to be a part of that company. I had no clue about it until after the game. It’s not stuff I’m really looking for. And these aren’t things I’m trying to accomplish. I’m going to the game. But having GMs not saying I’m going to be able to win Rookie of the Year, I love it. It’s a great thing.

Drafted Under the Radar

Another commonality between Haliburton and Mathurin: The way NBA executives spoke about them before the draft. Haliburton was the prospect most teams felt was undervalued in 2020, and I had multiple scouts tell me Mathurin had a chance to be the best player in the most recent draft. I shared that thought with them, and here’s what they said.

Haliburton: Talent evaluation’s not easy. And there’s misses. There’s guys who got drafted ahead of me, guys who got drafted after me, it’s easy to look back and be like, “Hey, in a redraft they should have drafted this, this should happened.” It’s easy to say in the moment, but when you’re talent evaluating in any shape, form, or fashion, you can’t evaluate heart. You can’t evaluate the willingness to get better. You can’t evaluate their growth in IQ, their want to learn, their want to be coached hard. You can’t evaluate those things. So there’s so much more that goes into it that you can ask all the questions you want. You can go ask somebody’s college coach, you can go ask their parents. You can go ask whatever you want. They’re going to lie. Of course they’re going to lie. They want their guy to get drafted higher. Definitely there’s guys that got drafted ahead of me, I know I’m better right now. I knew I was better than at the time. I know [Mathurin] feels the same way right now. He’s going to feel the same way next year and the year after that, too.

Tyrese said something about how you can’t evaluate heart. I feel like in some ways, you can’t because you don’t know what’s going on inside. But in some ways, isn’t it intuitive? I’m sure for you guys, you can recognize that in each other, both by the way you are as people, but also your actions on the court. Do you think you can evaluate heart? Are there better ways to evaluate it, or do we overthink it on the NBA side?

Mathurin: Nah, I think you probably overthink it. You would draft a no. 1 pick because he is really good. You wouldn’t really care if he has enough heart because you want him to produce, you want him to do what he does best: it’s to hoop. But like Ty said, heart over everything, man. If you’re good, you’re good. But if you’re good and you have heart, then it’s way better than just someone being good at basketball.

The Myles Turner Trade Talks

Last month, Pacers center Myles Turner went on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast and made the case for why the Lakers should trade for him. I asked the duo whether that became a thing in their locker room at all. They shut down the idea right away.

Haliburton: Nah, nah. Not at all. That is something we talked about as a group. Myles addressed it with us. We just move on. It is what it is, and the media’s going to make things bigger than they are. But at the end of the day, who cares? He’s been in trade rumors his whole career. We get that. … I already have been traded. But you understand, you just move on. It’s all a part of this game. Everybody in the locker room, we get along really well. We love playing with each other, cheer for each other, and things like that. So it is what it is. Guys just move on. And whatever happens, decision-makers are decision-makers. We just hoop.