His cinnamon rolls are fire, but Pacers' Bennedict Mathurin eager to return cooking on court

INDIANAPOLIS — Bennedict Mathurin knew something was wrong when he slammed into P.J. Washington while chasing a loose ball in the second quarter of the Pacers' March 5 game at Dallas. He mentioned it to someone on the Pacers staff, but decided to play through it the rest of the game.

And with the labrum in his right shoulder torn, Mathurin still managed to score 19 points in a 137-120 win over the Mavericks, who are one win from the NBA Finals. Only five of those points came after the injury, but he did knock down a fourth-quarter 3-pointer that helped put the game away.

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"I think I watch too many Kobe (Bryant) videos," Mathurin said Tuesday in his end-of-season exit interview with the media. "Keep playing through being hurt. Obviously, that's who I am, and I was going crazy that game, too, so there's no way I'm not going to finish the game. I was just trying to keep playing. I didn't know what it was, so I wasn't trying to stop playing."

Within days, Mathurin found out he would miss the rest of the season. And the Pacers' most hyper-competitive player had to watch from the sideline as his team battled through its most competitive portion of the regular season, then a playoff run that reached the Eastern Conference finals.

"It was hard," Mathurin said. "It was harder than expected, honestly. Watching the playoffs, watching the guys have fun and just being out there and competing at the highest level was hard for sure. But I think it has a positive side, just seeing the guys out there hooping. It definitely builds fire in me coming into next season."

It also drove home a point the Pacers coaching staff has been making to him throughout this season: The Pacers are better when Mathurin buys into their hyperkinetic system of ball and player movement. That's what helped them lead the NBA in scoring, field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage, and finish second in offensive efficiency in the regular season.

The 6-6, 210-pounder is one of the Pacers' most athletically gifted players, and he might even be their most gifted one-on-one scorer. But they can also win without him, which means even when he returns, they're not going to turn the game into the Bennedict Mathurin Show and feature him in isolation.

Mathurin might be the most important variable in the equation that could turn them into a championship-caliber team. They could use a long-armed, athletic wing who can score and defend and he has the tools to be exactly that. But if he doesn't fit in, the Pacers could eventually move on in their championship pursuits without him. That doesn't appear likely to happen in the immediate future as he's just two years into his NBA career and has two seasons left on his rookie scale contract, and he has a chance to make himself essential, but they can also build a foundation that doesn't include him.

And if he's being honest, that concept has taken some getting used to. Mathurin is accustomed to being the focal point of offenses and, after his rookie season, he wasn't entirely convinced that wouldn't be the case with the Pacers. He was always the star of his teams growing up in Montreal, then became the star of his NBA Academy team in Mexico City. He was Pac-12 Player of the Year as a sophomore in Arizona before the Pacers took him No. 6 overall in the 2022 draft.

He responded with one of the most productive rookie seasons in Pacers history, averaging 16.7 points per game to finish second to Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero among the league's first-year players. His 1,302 total points put him third all-time among Pacers rookies behind only Clark Kellogg (1,625 in 1982-83) and Chuck Person (1,541 in 1986-87). He became the first Pacer since Rik Smits in 1988-89 to earn first-team All-Rookie honors, so he reasonably believed the team would build around him.

But the Pacers are being built in the image of All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, a believer in spreading the wealth and keeping the ball moving. Haliburton led the league in assists with 10.9 this season, and with him setting the tone, the Pacers led the NBA not only in assists, but in passes per game.

Indiana Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin (00) shoots a free throw Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, during the first half of the game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Pacers defeated the Grizzlies, 116-110.
Indiana Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin (00) shoots a free throw Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, during the first half of the game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Pacers defeated the Grizzlies, 116-110.

Mathurin has figured out with Haliburton driving the train, he has to get on board, which means he can't play as much 1-on-1 as he's used to. That doesn't mean he can't drive or take shots, but it means the ball can't stick with him. Whatever he decides to do on a given possession, he has to commit quickly.

"It wasn't easy for me," Mathurin said. "... Just coming into the league at 20 years old, playing with older people, older teammates, I wish I would come in and be the best player but it's obviously not going to be as smooth as I want it to be."

Bennedict Mathurin learns teamwork on the sideline

Adjusting to teammates has meant learning to trust his teammates — to believe in them and trust they believe in him enough to know he'll be rewarded for passing the ball.

"Being able to trust my teammates was the biggest thing for me," Mathurin said. "Knowing that the ball was gonna come back to me, my teammates knowing how hard I work and the work I put in, that the ball will come back to me eventually."

He made significant progress in that regard in 2023-24. His scoring average fell from 16.7 points per game to 14.5 and his field goal attempts dipped from 12.2 to 11.2, but he was more efficient. He shot 44.6% from the field after making 43.4% of his shots as a rookie, with his 3-point percentage rising from 32.3% to 37.4%, in part because he was getting more clean catch-and-shoot 3s rather than forcing them off the dribble. His assists increased and his turnovers dropped.

"Just playing along with the team, just buying in and doing what's right for the team," Mathurin said. "That was the main thing for me this season, just to be able to play through the system, having fun with my teammates and just competing at the highest level. I feel like I've done a good job, obviously better than my rookie season ... It's all about adjusting."

The injury drove home that point, and it also put him in a position to better connect with his teammates on a personal level. Mathurin is a ferocious competitor with immense confidence in his talents and he projects a hard edge. He's generally quiet except when he's trash-talking his opponent. Also, he's fluent in four languages, but as a native of Quebec with Haitian roots, he's most comfortable expressing himself in French and Creole.

His stoicism makes him a bit of an outlier in a relatively tight-knit and social group. In their public comments about him, it's clear his teammates respect his talent, work ethic and his competitive nature, but they've also made playful jabs about his penchant to shoot rather than pass, and it isn't always obvious he's in on the joke.

So Mathurin has made it a bit of a mission to develop a closer bond with them while he's been on the shelf.

"That's been the biggest emphasis and the biggest growth for me is to express myself a little bit more to my teammates," Mathurin said. "I think they know about me on the court. I'm super competitive, sometimes overly competitive. It creates a narrative of me not being, obviously, the best teammate. Being hurt has helped me a lot. I don't have to, obviously, prepare for games like I used to before. It gave me an opportunity to connect with them a little bit more."

Benn Mathurin, master chef?

One way he's connected, he said, is through baking. He already had an interest in cooking, and baking in particular, and he's had time to focus on it. He said brings baked goods on the team plane.

"My teammates were able to see a different side of me," Mathurin said. "I've been getting high reviews ... Cookies are pretty easy for me. I'd say my best baked good was cinnamon rolls. I made cinnamon rolls and I think those were pretty much loved by the whole team."

None of that introspection and focus on baking has taken away from his rehab. Quite the contrary, actually. Even when he had a sling on his right arm, he was working on his left hand. His right shoulder is at least far along enough he can safely shoot right-handed layups — which he did at the Ascension St. Vincent court before his interview.

"He's at like 73 days since his surgery and this guy is way ahead of schedule with this thing," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "It's been freakish. He attacks everything with such intensity."

The way that he's attacked the rehab and the lessons learned have the Pacers coaching staff and front office still believing he's a critical piece long term.

"Benn Mathurin has a chance to be a star caliber player for the Indiana Pacers," Carlisle said. "He has gotten to see over the last 2 1/2 months what wins. It is defense, speed, quick decision making and recognition. And so his workouts this summer are going to be geared toward fast, efficient, quick decision making and developing defensively. He has the ability to be a terrific two-way player in this league."

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bennedict Mathurin injury a learning experience for Pacers young star