On the first play of his NBA career, Bennedict Mathurin screeched around a pair of screens and immediately scored an off-the-catch floater over the top of Kristaps Porzingis, going straight at the frame of a 7’3 dude standing under the basket without ever batting an eye. He didn’t wriggle between two centers, finding daylight for an acrobatic finish, like he did against Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. And he didn’t convert a three-point play at the rim, despite gathering his dribble from outside the free throw line and being confronted by four defenders in the paint, as was the case versus Miami. But, in some respects, what happened on that initial possession, particularly with regard to how it began, should be viewed as synonymous with his game as the fearlessness he displays when playing bully-ball and attempting to master the dark arts of drawing contact.
It’s true, he drives to the hoop as though every bridge behind him has crumbled and burned; however, part of the reason why he doesn’t often flinch in the face of giants is because of the advantage he gains with his proactive twitchiness, leveraging foot fakes along with off-ball actions and his use of screens to create separation.
As such, after re-watching all of his usage, including every shot attempt, turnover, assist, and foul drawn, here’s what can be surmised from the work he puts in before he puts the ball on the floor, presented via the subtle power (and occasional pitfalls) of his jab-step.
He turns his weak-hand into a strength
It may not always be as pronounced as trying to stomp out a fire, but just prior to when he scored over Porzingis, Mathurin slammed on the brakes behind the second off-ball screen and caught the ball in triple-threat, jabbing slightly backward to freeze Bradley Beal in the direction of his momentum before attacking opposite.
That jab-and-go to his left, where he makes his weak-hand a strength by repositioning his defender and attacking into the open lane, is arguably his go-to move, showing up across multiple play-types and spots on the floor to varying degrees of intensity.
He does it in combination with a shot-fake when attacking closeouts from the corner.
Or, in spot-up situations from above the break, whether getting to the rim or (very sparsely) going to his pull-up from in-between range.
Sometimes, when curtailed out of wide action, he uses it to reject a subsequent ball screen.
And, if he catches the ball in semi-transition from a quick flip, he may even tease his man by jabbing sideways, demonstrating why the struggle for defenders to guard him with their feet as opposed to their hands is real once they are shifted laterally.
Meanwhile, although he picks the ball up a smidge too early, here, he likewise brings the move to life when operating as the screener, popping out to three and faking the shot before connecting the jab-step with a right-to-left cross, and once again, shedding his defender.
Overall, because he’s capable of deploying the jab-and-go in a variety of settings (mainly) as a second-side operator, he’s able to mask some of the limitations with his handle by making himself more explosive against an already tilted defense.
He sells counter moves with his whole body
That said, he isn’t robotic. When his defender reads (or doesn’t react to) the jab-and-go, he reciprocates by reading (and actually reacting) to his defender. After all, a trend that shows up throughout many of these clips is that he doesn’t just sell the jab by throwing his shoulder and hip. He also does so with a deceptive shimmy, playing with a rhythm to bait an overreaction. Think of it like the ball is a snow globe. After jabbing to his right, he rapidly shifts his weight from side-to-side, jiggling the snow around in the globe, before using that gust of wind to blow by his defender in the same direction.
Of course, without straying too far away from the purpose of focusing on what he does pre-dribble to make himself a weapon, it bears pointing out that he can sometimes squander his gains by exhibiting a complexity bias with the finish — particularly during the team’s recent seven-game west coast road trip, when he started seeing crowds and shot 41 percent on twos. Here, for example, he shakes Jarred Vanderbilt by jab-stepping right and then rocking the weight of his body from his left leg to his right foot, but when Kelly Olynyk rotates from the corner, he contorts himself into an overly complicated off-hand layup.
Don’t get it twisted (no pun intended). He isn’t being fancy for style points. If anything, similar to the way in which a sunflower bends toward the sun, it’s possible that he switched hands while craning his body in search of contact rather than to avoid it. Still, with Olynyk starting to retreat, that’s a situation where it would arguably be preferable to put pressure on the rim as opposed to playing to get fouled (or, not get fouled — whichever is the case).
He swings into action on a dime
Returning though to where these types of plays begin, his reaction speed can be truly remarkable. Just look at this possession from the recent loss to Cleveland and notice how he doesn’t have eyes on the ball as he casually walks to his spot in the corner out of 1-4 flat to end the quarter.
With Aaron Nesmith pegged as the intended ghost screener, Mathurin likely isn’t expecting to be involved in the action aside from holding space. That is, until the defense makes a mistake. As Nesmith approaches with the screen, Cedi Osman attempts to pre-switch with Kevin Love but the message gets lost in translation. Tyrese, being Tyrese, processes the error and promptly spits out the data, flinging the ball to Mathurin, who is still in chill mode.
Now, look at how quickly he snaps to attention. Not only doing an about-face to catch the ball at the eleventh hour, but also doing so with a killer instinct, punishing the recovery to put Osman on skates with the combination of his trusted jab-step and misleading quiver.
But, he can also be patient
And yet, he doesn’t play so fast as to spoil the impact of his movements — especially when defended by bigs. For example, consider how he approaches attacking this closeout from Karl-Anthony Towns, jabbing and then strongly stepping over his frame to sell the drive, thereby creating space for his jump-shot.
That same methodical approach also applies at times versus switches, where he occasionally shows tiny glimmers of self-creation, at least when he passes the ball on and then gets it back to attack the big defender with his shot. Here, with an emphatic stomp, he keeps Jarrett Allen hopping, backing him up just enough with the threat of the reverberation to step into his one-dribble pull-up.
He sees obstacles as opportunities (mainly for himself)
Even so, he is generally better suited for putting the ball on the floor with his defender trailing — and teams know it. That’s why, when he explodes out of the corner around a pindown screen into a hand-off, more opponents have started switching up the line, meaning they switch the pindown and then try and either blow up the hand-off or switch it.
Here, although his man merely gets caught while trying to shoot the gap, the effect is similar, as he is confronted by the big at the end of the line while also receiving extra attention from the on-ball defender in the wake of the pass.
From there, with his momentum stunted, he passes the ball on and gets it back just like he did against Allen. Only, this time, with Jusuf Nurkic reacting more to his shot-fake than the same step-over he deployed against Towns, he puts his head down without the benefit of a prior bend in the defense. In the end, he not only misses a righty layup from the left side of the floor that hits nothing but glass; he also misses the available passing outlet behind the stunt as well as the corner pin-in screen Myles Turner is setting for Andrew Nembhard.
As opposing teams continue to gather intelligence on his game, his ability to keep dig downs at bay, whether with the pass or the dribble, will likely only grow in importance. To this point, he has a tendency to view the help defense like a turnstile that he can simply push through. Granted, that strong will is part of what makes him, him, but it can also lead to some difficult shots and turnovers.
It’s possible that some of that might be alleviated if he wasn’t playing adjacent to T.J. McConnell as a non-shooter, but the same thing also happened next to Haliburton. Plus, while Eric Gordon is certainly being aggressive, here, in straying from McConnell to plug the drive, this sequence is instructive as far as summarizing Mathurin’s trouble with recognizing what read to make when the defense sinks from the perimeter, which is to say nothing of manipulating weak-side defenders while executing an accurate pass in one fluid motion from a live dribble.
Given that less than 45 percent of his usage in spot-up situations is coming from no-dribble jumpers, another component of this is that teams seem to be catching onto the fact that his first inclination is to catch-and-drive without much of an existing arsenal from mid-range.
As such, he’s started seeing some shorter closeouts with defenders prioritizing him as a driver, which can occasionally lead to him record scratching from deep. Again, when the defense digs down (even from Haliburton!), his ability to deliver a pass on-time and on-target can be ... ahem ... touch-and-go.
By comparison, he has shown some incremental signs of progress with regard to finding the best shot for the team when the defense steps up. At the beginning of the season, he would routinely exhibit a bias for taking overly ambitious shots in traffic when dump-off passes and kick-outs were available.
Lately, when he attacks a closeout, he’s been a little more cognizant of passing windows around the basket rather than just trying to bust through a closed door.
All of which is to say that, going back to the first points he scored within his first 30 seconds of action, what he does before he dribbles is critical in powering the end result of his drives while, at times, compensating for his handle as a driver. With his jab-step and the various counters he has to his jab-step, he waits without waiting, actively dictating terms to the defense. Now that the defense has started gaining insight into those terms, the Pacers may need to be just as patient in allowing him to adapt the work that has got him this far and will take his game still further.