Bennedict Mathurin's best days are ahead of him, says Arizona HC Tommy Lloyd
The first time Tommy Lloyd saw Bennedict Mathurin on a basketball court in person, he was visiting the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico City to check in on another player. Then Gonzaga’s assistant coach, Lloyd was in town to see Oumar Ballo, a big man who would go on to join Lloyd at Gonzaga before transferring to Arizona when Lloyd left to take the head coaching position in Tucson.
“At the time I probably would have described him (Mathurin) as an athletic but physically under-developed, undersized, unskilled 4-man,” Lloyd told reporters on Friday.
That was, by Lloyd’s memory, roughly four years ago.
Not exactly the scouting report of an NBA prospect. And certainly not that of a player who would go on to become the sixth overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Now, the general manager for the Indiana Pacers describes Mathurin in a different way.
“Feisty,” Chad Buchanan told local media Thursday night after the draft wrapped. “Bulldog. Gritty competitor. He’s not afraid to challenge his teammates, he’s not afraid to challenge the opponent, and he’s not going to back down. As a rookie, you’ve got to have some of those traits to survive in the NBA. I think he thrives on finding ways to improve.”
The Pacers selected Mathurin Thursday night. At No. 6, Buchanan said they wanted to take the best player on the board. The Arizona guard and former Pac-12 Player of the Year was, in Indiana’s estimation, the clear best player on their board.
At Arizona, he got better. Lloyd joked that somehow between that first look and when he landed at Arizona, Mathurin developed his jumpshot. When Lloyd got to town and they sat down to discuss Mathurin’s future, they charted a plan to help him improve his position in the draft.
“This is a guy who doesn’t come with many extras, he kinda keeps to himself, doesn’t have a big group of people he runs with, and he really has immersed himself in the process of becoming a great basketball player,” Lloyd said.
Separate of the obvious talent, that’s the thing that sold Indiana on Mathurin. Benn just being Benn.
“When we brought him in for his workout, he did his workout in the morning and came back at night and did another workout on his own with Coach (Rick) Carlisle,” Buchanan said.
Added Carlisle: “He asked if the gym was open and if he could come back at 8 o’clock at night to workout and just work on some things. I said sure, how about I meet you at the gym? He said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great.’ We got together and had about an hour session working on footwork and stuff like that.”
Mathurin was staying the night in Indy and then leaving the next morning. So, when you’re a hooper’s hooper and you’re hoping to build a career off of basketball, what else is there to do other than, well, be around basketball?
“That was something that really stood out to us,” Buchanan said. “We’ve never had a draft prospect come in and finish his workout, shower, go eat, then come back and want to work out again. That was a very good sign for us.”
Carlisle has been around some of the game’s greatest players. When a player has what he called a “great intellectual curiosity” for the game, they have the chance to not just succeed, but achieve. “You could tell in the morning, but that evening it was clear to me this was some kind of guy,” Carlisle said.
And so now the Wildcat is a Pacer. The Indy Star’s James Boyd shared that anecdote with Lloyd on Friday and the Arizona head coach just chuckled. That’s Benn. Mathurin played in each of Arizona’s 63 games during his two-year college career. Last season, as Mathurin propelled the Wildcats to a 33-4 record, a Pac-12 title sweep, and a No. 1 seed, only Washington State’s Michael Flowers played more minutes—1,202 to Mathurin’s 1,201.
“He’s not trying to protect anything,” Lloyd said in response to Boyd. “Benn’s going for stuff. Which I think is super important. He’s in attack mode. I think you guys got a hungry guy. He’s a guy I’m pretty confident that once he gets there, he’s not going to feel like he’s arrived, he’s going to feel like he has to continue to prove to himself and to others that he belongs at that level. I think that’s the kind of hunger and desire you need and I think Benn has that in spades.”
Making it in the NBA isn’t easy, even for highly-drafted prospects. Mathurin is going to have to continue to evolve his game. But, for someone who just turned 20, the appeal is that the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year has production and just as much untapped potential.
Lloyd talked about the offseason of work that led up to the 2021-22 season. Mathurin wanted to improve as a driver, a ball-handler, and a decision-maker once he’d initiated an action.
Mathurin’s shooting ability is documented. Lloyd says he’s got a “really good wrist” and a clutch gene that sees him knock down key shots in big moments.
“Does he become more comfortable handling the ball and being more of a multiple dribble, multiple direction guy or is this guy gonna kinda slide into more of a catch-and-shoot, drive closeout type of guy? I think both of them are great, and that’s what excites me about him,” Lloyd said. “This is a guy who isn’t necessarily going to need to dominate the ball to be a great NBA player.”
Either type of player is extremely useful and valuable to an NBA franchise. Considering the Pacers already have a number of players who can be pure guards—Tyrese Haliburton, Malcolm Brogdon, TJ McConnell—Mathurin can grow naturally into his game.
Buchanan remembers being at the NBA Draft Lottery event and before the lottery balls were even revealed, he had a tap on his shoulder from Mathurin, introducing himself and his agent. Buchanan was told then that Mathurin’s team felt Indiana would be a great fit. Throughout the draft process, in all of their meetings, the Pacers came to feel like Mathurin really meant that.
“I look back and just feel like, gosh, maybe it was just meant to be,” Buchanan said.
In an interview with The Washington Post’s Ben Golliver, Mathurin said he was looking forward to facing LeBron James, that he wanted The King to prove on the floor that he was better than Mathurin because, as Mathurin says it, “I don’t think anybody is better than me.”
That bulldog mentality will serve him well. He backs it up.
“We had some tough moments early in the season and even throughout the season—you get in tough games, it happens—and Benn was great in those huddles,” Lloyd said. “Sometimes guys say things in those huddles and then go out and they’re not able to back it up. Benn was on the guys in huddles, was great, was focused about the task at hand, and then he went out and he made huge, clutch plays.”
Lloyd says his best days are ahead of him still.
How will his game evolve? That’s up to Mathurin and his new coaching staff. Lloyd thinks the ceiling is quite high, though.
Asked what he’ll give the Pacers right away, Benn was just Benn.
“Just winning,” he said. “I feel like I’m a winner.”