A week ago in this space, we speculated on the longshot possibility that Orlando’s Paolo Banchero could become the first rookie All-Star since Blake Griffin in 2011. It’s a stretch for several reasons – most of all, the conference coaches’ habit of favoring players from teams above or near .500 when voting for All-Star reserves.
But we’re dipping a toe back into similar unlikely waters with the suggestion – based on the first month of play – that an NBA rookie could win the league’s Sixth Man Award. Bennedict Mathurin, the ultra-confident Indiana Pacers wing, has ascended to the top spot in the Kia Rookie Ladder despite, yet partly due to, not starting even once so far.
Eleven members of the Class of 2022 have started at least a couple of games for their teams, but Mathurin has subbed in for all 12 of his appearances so far. Is that a lot? Well, the top six picks in last year’s draft started 373 of their 376 appearances in 2021-22. And the five rookies chosen ahead of Mathurin this year have started 46 of 48 games thus far.
This guy is no project, either. He leads all newcomers in 3-point field goal attempts per game (6.3), ranks second in scoring, shots and free throws, and is third in 3-point accuracy (45.3%) among rookies who have played 10 games or more. Indiana is a respectable 6-6, with Mathurin boasting a 64.9 true shooting percentage in the victories.
Coach Rick Carlisle, however, likes the rookie’s ability to impact the game with the second unit. And he feels Mathurin benefits from sitting and watching at tipoff to gauge the pace, physicality and Pacers’ needs.
“There are certain things that are important,” Carlisle said recently. “To not skip any steps. … It’s the best thing for the team and that’s the only thing everybody should care about.”
Will he start eventually? Almost certainly. But for now, Mathurin is scoring off the bench – the No. 1 bullet point in a sixth man’s job description – at a rate on par with former formally recognized super-subs.
“He's just undaunted. He just continues to play his game. Doesn’t get down. Continues to have a strong belief in his abilities.” – Rick Carlisle
second 30-point game for Bennedict Mathurin.📹 pic.twitter.com/Oax7CNhWqs
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 10, 2022
At 19.9 points per game, Mathurin is averaging more than all but five of the 40 SMOY winners since the award began in 1982-83. That short list includes Ricky Pierce in 1990 (23.0), Lou Williams in 2019 and 2018 (22.6 and 20.0), Eddie Johnson in 1989 (21.5) and Tyler Herro last season (20.7)
The role wouldn’t necessarily preclude him from ROY consideration, though it would be unusual. Most top rookies go to needy teams, with starter jobs up for grabs. But in 2017, Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon won that trophy despite starting only 28 of his 75 games. Oddly, Brogdon received just one third-place vote in the SMOY balloting, finishing far behind winner Eric Gordon and runner-up Andre Iguodala.
Granted, Mathurin winning the SMOY either as an alternative to the ROY (or in an unprecedented double snag) is even more improbable than Banchero joining the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum in the East’s starting frontcourt. But each has the numbers and has been playing like a top candidate for those honors.
This week’s Ladder, for the record, highlights a couple of new faces in MarJon Beauchamp and Jalen Williams. It had some worthy near-misses such as Utah’s Walker Kessler, San Antonio’s Jeremy Sochan and Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard.
Last season, the committee had to swing by a big-box store to get itself an extension ladder for some badly needed extra rungs. The way the rookies of 2022-23 are going, that might have to happen again.
The Top 5 this week on the 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Tuesday, Nov. 15)
1. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
Mathurin has been playing starter’s minutes – 28.2 per game, fourth-most on the Pacers – even though he has come off the bench in each of his 12 NBA appearances. Carlisle is so committed to the plan that when second-year guard Chris Duarte got hurt, he flipped the team’s other rotation rookie Andrew Nembhard into the starting lineup to keep Mathurin consistent in his role. And it suits him: he’s averaging 25.5 points per 36 minutes played, better than Banchero (24.5).
2. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons
Playing without backcourt mate Cade Cunningham (sore left shin), the 6-foot-4 South Bend native shined even if his Pistons (0-4) did not. Ivey notched his first 20-point performance and then immediately did it again, with 26 against Boston followed by 21 Monday against Toronto. Against the Raptors, he had eight assists and four rebounds, with Toronto coach Nick Nurse switching 2022 ROY Scottie Barnes onto Ivey in the fourth quarter. Said Pistons coach Dwane Casey: “His speed was the difference of getting into the paint and creating things for other people.”
3. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Banchero drops only due to inactivity. He missed Orlando’s past three games with a left ankle sprain. And, after sitting out practice Tuesday, was questionable for the Magic’s home tussle with the Timberwolves’ twin towers Wednesday night. “Obviously he is not happy,” coach Jamahl Mosley told reporters. Next up for Orlando and its No. 1 pick, if able: the Bulls in Chicago on Friday and then a two-game set in Indianapolis against Ladder rival Mathurin.
👋 paolo pic.twitter.com/GLdXhCJrAN
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) November 10, 2022
4. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings
A rough go lately for the Iowa product. Murray had to leave the Kings’ rousing victory over Brooklyn Tuesday with back soreness after scoring four points with three rebounds in 12 minutes. And this comes after his father revealed info about the personal issue that had knocked his son off-track recently. Turns out his grandmother suffered a stroke while attending his game at Charlotte on Oct. 31. Her condition appears to be improving, with Murray telling NBC Sports California, “She was able to open her eyes the last couple of days.” Even teammates didn’t initially know what was troubling Murray. He did score 21 against Golden State Sunday, including 5-of-9 shooting.
Keegan ends the 3rd with another 3-ball! pic.twitter.com/uCeL4phx6n
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) November 14, 2022
5. Jabari Smith, Jr.
The Rockets kept losing but Smith averaged a double-double in the losses, with a 15-10 game at Toronto and a 15-rebound performance at New Orleans. He shot 10-of-27 for the week, which actually raised his season field-goal percentage (31.6). Smith had a pair of blocks against the Pelicans and three steals against the Clippers Monday, but his fit in Houston’s guard-dominated offense has been poor. Also, his net rating of minus-18 (102.2-120.2) remains the lowest among all rookies who have played at least 10 games.
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) November 10, 2022
The Next 5:
6. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets
Efficiency gem had 14-6-5 with 5 steals in 21 min. at TOR.
7. Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers
Finger injury didn’t stop his 13-point, 5-of-7 shooting vs. Spurs Wednesday.
8. MarJon Beauchamp, Milwaukee Bucks
Bucks’ injuries have opened door for their Ignite alum.
9. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Equally productive as spot starter or off OKC bench.
10. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons
10 offensive boards in four games, more than all but 9 rookies have all year.
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