Change of Pace: Is Bennedict Mathurin Still One of the Best Rookies?
After being considered an early favorite for Rookie of the Year, the Bennedict Mathurin train has seemed to have lost its head of steam, as the Arizona Wildcat is now only fourth in odds to win the award.
Naturally, with his gradual decline has come a series of questions regarding the Indiana Pacers rookie. What’s wrong with Mathurin? Is this just a classic case of a youngster hitting the rookie wall? Or have teams already figured him out? And should we still view him as one of the best prospects in his class moving forward?
At first glance, those unfamiliar with his existence may confuse the rookie for a young LeBron James. Mathurin is a basketball adonis with a physical stature so divine it almost feels like it was hand-chiseled by the ancient Greek gods.
However, don’t let his gaudy physique fool you. This fellow is far more than a brute. Mathurin’s drive game is an amalgamation of his classmates best attributes. He combines Paolo Banchero’s power, Jaden Ivey’s speed, Shaedan Sharpe’s verticality, and Jalen Williams’ understanding of stride length to blitz the rim off the dribble and by attacking closeouts.
(Sidenote: If anyone was wondering, Mathurin is the proud owner of the best euro-step in his class.)
His ability to mercilessly attack the paint also makes him a free-throw drawing jukebox. His 9.6 free throw attempts per 100 possessions are in the 95th percentile in the entire league. And among rookies, that rate only trails Banchero (he’s at 10.4 attempts per 100).
The jaw-dropping athleticism he utilizes to create these looks in the halfcourt also makes him the James Worthy of any Tyrese Haliburton/Magic Johnson analogy. Despite playing less than 30 minutes a night (27.9, to be exact), Mathurin is averaging 3.9 transition possessions per game (93rd percentile, per NBA.com). On top of that, he’s converting those opportunities at a rate that puts him in the 64th percentile in efficiency (which is higher than Banchero, Ivey, and Williams).
He’s also got arguably the best outside shooting indicators of any player selected in the lottery this year. Since he played two years at Arizona, we can be more confident in the sample size we have of him than we would for someone who was just a one-and-done.
During that two-year stretch, Mathurin averaged 38.3% on the 316 3-pointers he attempted and 78.9% on his 256 free throws. And while he’s having a down rookie season from beyond the arc (32.1% ), he’s continued to convert at the free throw line (82.9%). Remember, sometimes free throw percentage can be an even better indicator of future perimeter shooting success because it is a shooting measure independent of team context.
His overall numbers may be down, but he’s flashed a great deal of promise as a pull-up shooter. Of all rookies who take at least one pull-up three per game, only Jaden Hardy has a higher percentage than Mathurin (34.8% on 1.6 attempts per game).
For those keeping scoring at home, Mathurin has shown the aptitude to consistently self-generate the three most efficient shots in basketball: free throws, shots at the rim, and threes. And it’s because of this that he’s second (again behind Hardy) in True Shooting percentage (56.3%) among rookies with a usage rate of 18% or higher (minimum 25 games played).
This doesn’t account for the fact that of those rookies with a usage rate of 18% or higher, he takes the highest frequency of shots with four seconds or less on the shot clock (per NBA.com). This is meaningful because these shots are generally inefficient, last-ditch hand grenades that bog down the True Shooting percentage of whoever is forced to take them. The fact that Mathurin has to pay this tax more than any other high-usage rookie (and still maintains high-end efficiency relative to his contemporaries) just goes to show how far along as a scorer he already is.
Mathurin is already an NBA-level scorer, and his standing in that department will only improve over time. But the problem here is that, as of right now, that seems to be his only NBA-level skill.
For starters, while he’s a potent downhill driver, he suffers heavily from a case of tunnel vision. According to NBA.com tracking data, only 17% of his drives end in a pass, which is the lowest among rookies that drive at least one time a game.
Part of this is a tradeoff to scoring aggression, but part of it is also his inability to see higher-level reads. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can get a pretty good idea of a player’s playmaking acumen by looking at their interceptions.
The best passers turn the ball over while attempting risky, defense-breaking passes that create efficient shots for their team that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to had they not taken the chance. Meanwhile, if you look at Mathurin’s errors, you see him failing to deliver the most basic reads.
If that doesn’t convince you, Mathurin’s 7.6 AST% is the fourth-lowest of all rookies with 18% usage or higher, only ahead of off-ball players Jabari Smith Jr., Patrick Baldwin Jr., and Tari Eason.
Speaking of off-ball offense, outside of the occasional cutting and his viscous closeout attacks, Mathurin doesn’t offer too much value in this area.
At times, he’ll quite literally just park himself in the corner with his hands on his hips. And it’s not like he’s doing that to prepare for spot-up situations. In fact, the reason his 3-point percentage is lower this year is actually because his catch-and-shoot accuracy is lower than his pull-up conversion rate (30.7% on 2.3 attempts per game).
(Sidenote #2: this phenomenon is noteworthy because pull-up shots tend to be more difficult than catch-and-shoot attempts, which are usually assisted by a teammate and, therefore, less contested by the defense.)
The best piece of evidence one can turn to regarding his lack of (current) off-ball utility is Mathurin’s scoring numbers with and without Haliburton on the floor. In 1,165 minutes without Haliburton, Mathurin’s scoring volume (by 12.2 points per 100) and efficiency (by five percent True Shooting) increase compared to his 841 minutes with Haliburton (per PBP Stats). You expect the volume to go up, but it is uncommon for a player’s efficiency to improve when they are on the court without someone they should – theoretically – be playing off of.
His defense is an entirely different adventure. Rookies are usually the league’s worst defenders, and Mathurin is no exception to the rule. Of the 247 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes this year, Mathurin ranks 235th in our defensive DRIP metric (our catch-all defensive metric, which projects a player’s contribution to a team’s plus-minus per 100 possessions).
On the ball, he doesn’t struggle with the same stiffness limitations as Banchero, but he’s still prone to getting blown by at the point of attack. Off the ball, he’s in the 28th percentile in steal rate among rookies. Between that and his poor passing (two strong indicators of positional awareness on defense), we can infer he’s not doing too hot in that category, either.
To get a better feel for his warts on that end of the floor, let’s take a look at some of his blunders from a recent game against the Toronto Raptors.
- First Clip: Mathurin gets caught on a on-ball screen. This is never ideal, but it is especially problematic when your teammate is in drop coverage. In this instance, Mathurin’s negligence leaves Myles Turner alone on an island against Fred VanVleet.
- Second Clip: This time, Mathurin runs into an off-ball screen, which leads to another uncontested VanVleet three.
- Third Clip: Mathurin is late to his low man rotation in the paint, and as a result, he fouls Jakob Poeltl when he tries to tag the roller.
- Fourth Clip: Mathurin requests that Buddy Hield switch assignments with him. No biggie, right? But Mathurin never executes the switch, and both he and Hield end up running toward the same guy. Then Mathurin fouls Pascal Siakam on his jumper.
The good news here is that none of Mathurin’s defensive shortcomings are physical, which means that with enough experience and effort, they can be corrected. He’s already showing signs of this type of growth (even in that same Raptors’ game), but as of right now, he’s a clear negative on that end of the court.
We know what you’re thinking: you never answered the original question about Mathurin’s “rookie wall.”
Well, that’s because there is no rookie wall! What? You don’t understand?
Since after the All-Star break, Mathurin has been averaging two minutes less than he was averaging before the league’s mini-hiatus (despite Haliburton missing time and the team being out of the playoff/play-in mix).
Typically, a decrease in minutes usually coincides with a scoring slump. However, Mathurin’s True Shooting is up 1.7 percentage points during this period.
Mathurin is still the scoring machine he was before he hit his “rookie wall.” The problem is, like we said, he can’t contribute much outside of that, and it’s catching up to him.
In this way, he resembles another forward with a desirable build, Corey Maggette. Maggette, like Mathurin, was an incredibly gifted scorer. But because of the one-dimensional nature of his game, he peaked at around a top-40/50 player level (his best Box Plus-Minus season was tied for 37th in 2004-05).
Mathurin is easily on track to be a modern-day Maggette. But like we said in our Jeremy Sochan analysis, with the way the game has evolved, what made a player a top-50 player two decades ago won’t make a player a top-50 player in 2023. Today’s stars are more multi-dimensional than ever. The exact skillset that made a player an All-Star in the 1990s might only make them a top-100 player in today’s game.
If Mathurin wants to hold the same status as Maggette did back in his heyday (or take that archetype a step further and become an All-Star), he’s going to need to improve in the areas we’ve outlined in this article. He’ll have to become more like, say, a Jaylen Brown than a Maggette.
If he does that, not only does Mathurin flirt with All-Star caliber impact, but he becomes the perfect partner to pair with Haliburton in the Pacers’ pursuit to bring Showtime to the Midwest.