When Indiana dealt Domantas Sabonis last year, everyone thought the Pacers were going to be selling and be in contention for the Victor Wembayama-Scoot Henderson sweepstakes, but the opposite happened.
Currently, Indiana (18-17) is in the middle of the pack. For them to be this good, everyone expected Tyrese Halliburton to be awesome (which he is, as he’s on track to make the All-Star team), Buddy Hield to continue the outside shooting, and Myles Tuner to be the man in the middle. However, these three guys aren’t enough, especially with the talent that is present in all teams. What has helped their play so far is their two rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard.
The former NBA Academy student Mathurin is showing why the Pacers drafted him sixth overall in the recent draft. He’s a streaky shooter that has shown the ability to create off the dribble and make defensive plays.
Averaging around 17 points as a rookie on 34 percent shooting from deep is a good start for Mathurin, especially in the NBA. Among first-year players, he is second to Paolo Banchero in terms of points and free throws made, and third overall in field goal makes. What’s more impressive is Mathurin is doing it as a third or fourth option rather than Banchero who’s arguably the primary option in Orlando. The question is will his defense and playmaking reach the same level as his scoring? When it does happen, the Pacers will have a cornerstone piece.
Another rookie, who hasn’t had the flashiest rookie season but has earned Coach Rick Carlisle’s trust, is Andrew Nembhard. Coach Carlisle has a reputation for not playing rookies (except if you’re Luka Doncic), but Nembhard has gotten his favor.
The 22-year-old goes out on the floor as a secondary ball-handler and just makes the right plays as exhibited by his nearly four assists per game. He’s also a marksman from the rainbow country at nearly 38 percent shooting. Nembhard is showing maturity and a skill set that will make him a multi-year pro. The question for him is whether he will be able to stand out in a league where there are a ton of players who are more athletic or have higher ceilings.
The Pacers are a team that usually floats around mediocrity. Save for the early 2010s when we saw two Eastern Conference Finals appearances, they seem to always fall short in the past decade. Now, they have a young core of burgeoning stars. They have a champion coach. The next step for them is for the rookies to continue the level of success and production that they’ve shown so far to help this team make a big leap.