Kia Rookie Ladder: Bennedict Mathurin climbs to first place while flourishing on the bench

Bennedict Mathurin shone on the Indiana bench to start his NBA career.

A week ago in this space, we speculated on the long-term possibility of Orlando’s Paolo Banchero becoming the first All-Star recruit since Blake Griffin in 2011. That’s overkill for several reasons — chiefly, the habit of conference coaches favoring players on 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 winger, has risen to the top spot in the Kia Rookie Ladder despite, but in part because of, not having started once so far.

Eleven members of the Class of 2022 have started at least a few games for their teams, but Mathurin has replaced for all 12 of his appearances so far. Is it a lot? Well, the top six picks in last year’s draft started 373 of their 376 appearances in 2021-22. And the five recruits chosen this year ahead of Mathurin have started 46 of the 48 games to date.

This guy is also not a project. He leads all newcomers in 3-point field goal attempts per game (6.3), ranks second in scoring, shots and free throws, and third in 3-point accuracy (45.3%) among rookies who played 10 or more games. Indiana is a respectable 6-6, with Mathurin posting a 64.9 true shooting percentage in the wins.

Coach Rick Carlisle, however, likes the rookie’s ability to impact the game with the second unit. And he thinks Mathurin had better sit back and watch the whistleblowers to gauge the pace, physicality and needs of the Pacers.

“There are certain things that are important,” Carlisle said recently. “Not to skip any steps. … It’s the best thing for the team and it’s the only thing everyone should care about.

Will it finally start? Almost certainly. But for now, Mathurin is scoring from the bench – point number 1 in a sixth man’s job description – at a pace comparable to officially recognized former super-subs.

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. This 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 considering ROY, although that would be unusual. Most of the best recruits go to teams in need, with starting jobs up for grabs. But in 2017, Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon won that trophy despite having started just 28 of his 75 games. Curiously, Brogdon only received one vote for third place in the SMOY ballot, finishing far behind winner Eric Gordon and runner-up Andre Iguodala.

Certainly, Mathurin winning the SMOY either as an alternative to the ROY (or in an unprecedented double hiccup) is even more unlikely than Banchero joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum in the Eastern starting area. But each has the numbers and has played as a prime contender for those honors.

This week’s ladder, for the record, highlights some new faces in MarJon Beauchamp and Jalen Williams. He 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 go to a big box store to get an extension ladder for some much needed extra rungs. The way the 2022-23 rookies are doing, it might have to happen again.

The Top 5 this week on the Kia Rookie Ladder 2022-23:

(All stats through Tuesday, November 15)

1. Benedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season statistics: 19.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.3 apg
Since the last Ladder: 22.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.5 apg
Last scale: 2
Draft Picks: n°6 overall

Bennedict Mathurin scored 30 points against Denver last week.

Mathurin played starting minutes — 28.2 per game, fourth on the Pacers — even though he came 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 injured, he knocked the team’s other rotational rookie Andrew Nembhard into the starting lineup to keep Mathurin consistent in his role. And that suits him well: he scores an average of 25.5 points over 36 minutes played, better than Banchero (24.5).

2. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season statistics: 16.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.1 apg
Since the last Ladder: 19.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.3 apg
Last scale: 3
Draft Picks: N°5 overall

Jaden Ivey scored a career-high 26 points against Boston.

Playing without his backcourt mate Cade Cunningham (sore left shin), the 6-foot-4 South Bend native shone even though his Pistons (0-4) didn’t. Ivey notched his first 20-point performance, 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 passing the 2022 ROY Scottie Barnes to Ivey in the fourth quarter. Pistons coach Dwane Casey said: “His speed was the difference between getting into the paint and creating things for other people.”

3. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season statistics: 23.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 3.6 apg
Since the last Ladder: DNP
Last scale: 1
Draft Picks: No. 1 overall

Banchero falls only due to inactivity. He has missed Orlando’s last three games with a sprained left ankle. And, after sitting out practice on Tuesday, was questionable for the Magic’s home fight with the Twin Towers Timberwolves on Wednesday night. “Obviously he’s not happy,” coach Jamahl Mosley told reporters. Next up for Orlando and his No. 1 pick, if possible: the Bulls in Chicago on Friday, then a two-game game in Indianapolis against Ladder rival Mathurin.

4. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season statistics: 12.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.1 apg
Since the last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.3 apg
Last scale: 4
Draft Picks: N°4 overall

A blow lately for the Iowa product. Murray had to leave the Kings resounding victory on Brooklyn on Tuesday with back pain after scoring four points with three rebounds in 12 minutes. And it comes after his father information revealed about the personal issue that had recently derailed her son. It turns out that her grandmother suffered a stroke while attending her game in Charlotte on October 31. Her condition appears to be improving, with Murray telling NBC Sports California, “She’s been able to open her eyes the last few days.” Even his teammates didn’t initially know what was troubling Murray. He scored 21 against Golden State Sunday, including shooting 5 of 9.

5.Jabari Smith, Jr.

Season statistics: 10.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since the last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Scale: 6
Draft Picks: N°3 overall

The Rockets continued to lose but Smith averaged a double-double in losses, with a 15-10 game in Toronto and a 15 rebound performance in New Orleans. He shot 10 of 27 for the week, which actually increased his field goal percentage for the season (31.6). Smith had a pair of blocks against the Pelicans and three flights against the Clippers on Monday, but his fit in Houston’s guard-dominated offense was poor. Additionally, his net rating of minus-18 (102.2-120.2) remains the lowest among any rookie who has played at least 10 games.

The next 5:

6. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Season statistics: 8.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.1 apg
Since the last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Scale: 5
Draft Picks: No. 17 overall

The efficiency gem was 14-6-5 with 5 interceptions in 21 min. at TOR.

7. Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers

Season statistics: 9.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.4 apg
Since the last Ladder: 11.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.0 apg
Last Scale: ten
Draft Picks: No. 7 overall

A finger injury didn’t stop his 13-point, 5-of-7 shooting against Spurs on Wednesday.

8. Mar Jon Beauchamp, Milwaukee Bucks

Season stats: 7.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 0.4 apg
Since the last Ladder: 15.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Scale: N / A
Draft Picks: No. 24 overall

Bucks’ injuries opened the door to their former Ignite.

9. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 8.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since the last Ladder: 10.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last scale: N / A
Draft Picks: No. 12 overall

Also productive as a point starter or off the OKC bench.

10. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 6.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.3 apg
Since the last Ladder: 3.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last scale: N / A
Draft Picks: No. 13 overall

10 offensive boards in four games, more than all but 9 rookies all year.

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Steve Aschburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archives here and follow him on Twitter.

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