The 2022-2023 NBA season hasn’t even reached its halfway mark, yet the Rookie of the Year race has effectively been whittled down to two standout players in the eyes of oddsmakers.
Do-it-all Orlando Magic power forward Paolo Banchero, the top selection in June’s draft, is a prohibitive favorite (-800 at WynnBET, -700 at Caesars Sportsbook) to be named the league’s top first-year player, while Pacers shooting guard Bennedict Mathurin (+250 at WynnBET, +425 at Caesars) is the only other rookie with single-digit odds.
But Mathurin, the sixth pick out of Arizona who averages 19 points per game off the bench for Indiana, is also among the favorites to win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. Right now, he has the fifth-shortest odds (8/1) at Caesars to claim the honor, trailing Russell Westbrook (+135), Jordan Poole (3/1), Malcolm Brogdon (+450), and Christian Wood (+750).
Should Mathurin somehow win both awards, he would become the first NBA player to accomplish that feat in the same season.
‘This guy’s gonna be a star’
Heading into the current campaign, the Pacers were considered likelier to contend for the first pick in next year’s draft than for the playoffs. But at 15-16, Indiana is firmly in the Eastern Conference play-in picture and has thus far resisted the urge to trade a pair of key veteran starters in center Myles Turner and swingman Buddy Hield.
When the season began, many assumed Mathurin would come off the bench for a few games before joining point guard Tyrese Haliburton (Caesars’ second favorite for Most Improved Player behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) in Indiana’s starting backcourt of the future. But with Mathurin taking so keenly to the sixth man role and the Pacers still in postseason contention, coach Rick Carlisle has been content not to tinker with his rotation.
“It’s almost been forced upon them because they’ve been winning,” said David Lieberman, Caesars’ lead NBA trader. “Bringing him off the bench to start the year made a lot of sense. It’s hard to complain with the results, and I think with rookies, he’s comfortable coming off the bench, he’s playing well, and you don’t want to change what’s working. They’ve been a pretty decent team this season, and if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it.”
“Am I surprised he’s not starting? A little bit, but this guy’s gonna be a star in the league for years, so I think it’s OK at the moment,” added WynnBET Senior Trader Motoi Pearson.
So which award does Mathurin have a better shot at winning? Here, Lieberman and Pearson have a difference of opinion.
“Right now, Banchero’s at minus-eight bucks. It’s still early in the season, but I’d bet the Sixth Man of the Year before Rookie of the Year,” said Pearson. “Injury is the only thing that can stop Banchero, because it doesn’t seem like anyone else can at this time.”
“I think he would have a better chance of winning Rookie of the Year just for the sole fact that if Banchero gets hurt, Mathurin’s a lock to win it at that point,” countered Lieberman. “If Banchero missed a good part of the season, that would bump Mathurin up quite a bit. If his scoring picks up a little bit, he could make a run at Westbrook and Poole as well.”
Hot on their Hields
While Orlando has been hot of late, winning six of its last seven games against quality opposition, the Magic are still just 11-21 on the season. But as Lieberman explained, a team’s record is more relevant to the sixth man than the rookie race.
“If it was a really close race [for ROTY], that could be a deciding factor,” he said. “But with sixth man it’s usually the best bench player on one of the better teams.”
That logic would seem to put both Mathurin and Westbrook’s candidacies in precarious positions. But Mathurin’s pain might ultimately be Westbrook’s gain. The Lakers have long been rumored to be the most likely landing spot for both Turner and Hield. Such a maneuver would not only bolster Los Angeles’ chances, but would stand to thrust Mathurin into Indiana’s starting lineup — and out of the running for Sixth Man of the Year.
“The Pacers, while they’re playing well, it just makes too much sense to trade Hield and Turner if they get the right offer,” said Pearson.
Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY