The youth movement is underway in earnest in Indiana.
The Pacers started to reshape their roster in February at the deadline, bringing in second-year rising star Tyrese Haliburton at point guard.
In many ways, the 2022 NBA Draft was the next stage in assembling a new young core in Indiana. The Blue & Gold added three players in Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin, Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard, and Baylor forward Kendall Brown that fit their vision of the new-look Pacers: dynamic, versatile, and hungry.
Mathurin, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year and an elite athlete, provides explosiveness on the wing. It’s easy to envision him catching lobs from Haliburton and bringing Gainbridge Fieldhouse to his feet for years to come.
Nembhard, who ran the point for the past two years for Gonzaga, the winningest program in Division I over that span, provides an intelligent guard with size and the preternatural ability to set up his teammates.
Brown is an explosive leaped with a 41-inch vertical and a gifted cutter off the ball, with the versatility to play either on the wing or in the frontcourt.
And all of them are young. Mathurin just turned 20 on Sunday. Brown only turned 19 last month. And Nembhard is the “old man” of the crew at 22.
That trio now joins the 22-year-old Haliburton and last year’s first-round picks Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson to form an impressive collection of young talent.
“We’re really excited about this draft,” Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard said at Friday’s introductory press conference for the three newest Pacers. “Last year, there were some changes and we went a little young. That got us prepared to be in a position to have the picks that we have.”
Pritchard said draft night unfolded about as much as they ever could have imagined. After game-planning a number of scenarios, it became quite clear by the time the draft started that Mathurin would be available at the sixth overall pick.
To say the Pacers were thrilled is underselling their reaction. They had been blown away by Mathurin when he worked out for the team on June 10.
Mathurin went through an individual workout that morning, which all parties agreed went well. He tested “off the charts” according to Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle. But Mathurin was disappointed in one aspect — his performance in a shooting drill, where players go “around the world” and shoot five 3-pointers from five different spots outside the arc.
If a player hits 20 of 25 shots, he gets to ring the bell. Mathurin didn’t reach that number and it irked him as he showered and went out to eat with the Pacers’ brass. It was bothering him so much that during the meal he asked if the practice court at the Ascension St. Vincent Center was available that night, hoping to get in another workout before his flight the next morning.
When he asked, Carlisle volunteered to go to the gym with him. They wound up working together for an hour, discussing footwork and other aspects of the game.
“It told me a lot about him as a guy that really has a great intellectual curiosity for the game, a real love of the game,” Carlisle said. “Guys that have a chance to really succeed and achieve in this league have a real fascination with self discovery and getting better. He’s one of those guys. I could just tell.”
As the draft continued to unfold, the Pacers had their eyes on two more players in Nembhard and Brown. Both were available at 31, when Indiana opted for Nembhard. But as soon as the pick was in, General Manager Chad Buchanan and the rest of the team worked the phones, trying to find a way to trade up to acquire another pick to take Brown.
They found a taker in Minnesota with the 48th pick, and as the draft got to picks 45 and 46 and Brown was still on the board, they pulled the trigger on the deal.
Brown was at the draft in the stands and was thrilled to find out he’d be going to Indiana.
“Every player wants to be (drafted) as high as they can, but really I’m just all about the fit,” he said. “I feel like I fit really well here. I trust them and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be here.”
Pritchard stated that the Pacers had all three players ranked in the top 20 on their draft board and had no realistic expectation of adding all three entering the night.
“The draft is one part of a chance to build a team, a chance to remake a team,” Pritchard said. “One of the things I’m absolutely convinced us is the three men that are up here are going to be part of this organization for a long time.”
All three players fit the mold of what the Pacers have been looking for as they reshape their roster. Carlisle noted that Indiana was last in the league in dunks early last season before the addition of Haliburton and increased minutes for leapers like Jackson and Oshae Brissett.
The 2022 draft was a continuation in the process of adding elements that made the Pacers’ new preferred style of play — up-tempo and aggressive. All three have size (Nembhard is 6-5, Mathurin is 6-6, and Brown is 6-8) and toughness.
Mathurin, for instance, grew up playing three sports in Canada — basketball, football, and ice hockey. He made for quite the imposing defenseman before giving up his skates as teenager.
“We want to be versatile,” Carlisle said. “Each one of these guys — Kendall can play three and four, Benn can play two and three, and Andrew can play one and two. They have versatility, they have love for the game, and they all have a dynamic element to their game.”
Mathurin couldn’t help but smile when asked if he had given any though to catch a lob from Haliburton yet.
“To be honest, I probably thought about it a little bit,” he said. “Just Tyrese throwing the ball as high as he can and me throwing it down. It might be a little competitive between me and Kendall.”
Eyes quickly turned to Nembhard after Mathurin didn’t include him in that group of high-flyers.
“I’ll throw it to them,” the point guard quipped.
While they’re all young and dynamic, all three players come from winning pedigrees. As it just so happens, Arizona, Baylor, and Gonzaga were three of the four schools to receive one seeds in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Playing alongside other NBA talent (Nembhard played with Chet Holmgren, the second overall pick on Thursday, while Brown shared the frontcourt with ninth-overall pick Jeremy Sochan at Baylor and Mathurin had two Arizona teammates drafted in the top 33) helped all of the players prepare for the leap up in talent at the next level.
“The last two years I’ve been really fortunate to win a lot of games,” Nembhard said. “Be a part of a team that has a great culture and knows how to come to work every day and get better.”
There also is no shortage of connections to the current Pacers roster among the trio. Nembhard grew up playing with Brissett, who he first met in the sixth grade in Toronto.
He and Montreal native Mathurin also share a couple connections, both playing on Canada’s youth national teams and playing for Tommy Lloyd, who was an assistant at Gonzaga in 2020-21 before taking over as Arizona’s coach last season.
Brown attended Sunrise Christian Academy, the alma mater of Pacers sharpshooter Buddy Hield.
It likely won’t take long for the trio to bond with their new teammates. First up will be Summer League in Las Vegas next month. There are usually more relaxed vibes at the two-week event, but make no mistake, the newest Pacers will be gunning for the trophy.
As Mathurin’s workout proved, he isn’t content to just settle for anything less than his best.
“I like to compete a lot,” he said Thursday. “I like to win. That’s a big part of me.”