‘A city of underdogs’: How Montreal shaped Bennedict Mathurin’s path to NBA Draft

CBB analyst Seth Greenberg joins Follow The Money to discuss how much he likes Canadian Bennedict Mathurin, and how high he sees him getting drafted, also discusses what draft position he sees a couple other key names around the top 10.

One look at Bennedict Mathurin tells you all you need to know about the 20-year-old Montreal native: that he is fearless, determined and deadly serious when it comes to the game of basketball. He has a no-nonsense aura that oozes confidence. Underestimate me at your own peril, it says.

It’s a mentality Mathurin has worked on ever since he left high school at age 15 to attend the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico City. Though he also played hockey and football growing up, he became a four-star basketball recruit as a young teenager and his quick ascent has landed him here — a projected top-10 pick at this week’s NBA Draft.

But he isn’t satisfied with being good. He wants to be great. The best, even. And he believes he will be. At the NBA Draft combine in late May, Mathurin was asked where he will be in five years. His answer: “The best player in the NBA.”

The 6-foot-6, 205-pound wing isn’t just talking, either. Mathurin has a unique blend of size and strength, dynamic shooting, shot creation and bouncy athleticism that makes him the perfect wing for the modern NBA — able to play multiple positions and succeed both on the ball and off it. In fact, Mathurin has played every position from point guard to power forward over the past few seasons at the NBA Academy and Arizona, leaning on his advanced feel for the game to succeed in different roles.

But more than his skill set, Mathurin is where he is today because of his inner-city Montreal upbringing and his family’s guiding influence.

“Where I’m from, there’s a lot of people who chose the wrong path or they didn’t have the opportunity to be successful in life,” Mathurin said on a recent conference call. “I think it really shaped me. I wanted to be different, and I wanted to do great things in life and inspire kids from where I’m from.”

That he already has. While Montreal has produced plenty of NBA players in recent years including Joel Anthony, Chris Boucher, Khem Birch and Luguentz Dort, the city has never seen one of those players drafted as a lottery pick or develop into a true NBA superstar. In fact, all of those aforementioned players went undrafted and made it to the league the hard way, which is why Mathurin calls Montreal “a city of underdogs.”

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Mathurin has paved a new path to the NBA for Quebecois and Canadian ballers to follow, becoming the first Canadian to join one of the NBA academies — a year-round elite basketball development program that provides top high school-age athletes from outside the U.S. with a holistic approach to player development. After a successful two-year stint there, where Mathurin had to grow up quickly as he lived away from home for the first time and became fluent in Spanish, he earned a scholarship to the University of Arizona.

Mathurin flourished there the past two seasons, earning a Pac-12 All-Freshman team selection in his first season and then being named Pac-12 Player of the Year, the Pac-12 Tournament’s most outstanding player and a second-team All-American by The Associated Press last season. He averaged 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 45 per cent from the field and 37 per cent from three-point range. Mathurin will tell you that he’s a shotmaker at heart, and his coaches agree.

“I think he’s a potential 20-point per game scorer in the NBA. There’s not many guys like that walking around on this earth,” said Jack Murphy, the associate head coach who recruited Mathurin to Arizona and compares his mental fortitude and intelligence to former Arizona wing Andre Iguodala. “He’s got a great head for it. He’s got a great mindset. And I think he’s gonna keep striving for the next goal on his list — whatever that may be, I mean, you’d have to ask him — but I’m not gonna say that he’s not going to reach it because he’s reached every goal he’s ever talked to me about.”

Speaking of goals, Mathurin is making good on inspiring the next generation, with several prospects out of Quebec following in his footsteps and choosing the NBA Academy Latin America as their path forward. Those players include Olivier-Maxence Prosper (Marquette University), Tre-Vaughn Minott (University of South Carolina), and Wilguens Exacte Jr. (recently committed to University of Utah).

“When I was younger, there were a lot of good players around Montreal but they didn’t get the chance to go to the U.S. It was pretty hard back then for players from Canada to study in the U.S. and show their talents,” Mathurin said in a phone interview during his sophomore season at Arizona. “So, basketball where I’m from is just getting bigger … I feel like the game has grown a lot since I left when I was younger.”

Mathurin wouldn’t be in this position to go top-10 in the NBA Draft and to inspire the next generation of Quebec ballers in the first place if it wasn’t for two very influential people in his life: his siblings.

Mathurin started playing basketball at six-years old because of his older brother and sister, picking up a ball for the first time at their practices and sticking with the sport after seeing their successes. His brother, Dominque, was his best friend before dying in a tragic bicycle accident when he was 15 and Bennedict was 12. But instead of giving up, the loss pushed Mathurin to work even harder, saying on a recent conference call that “my brother is the reason why I keep going every day in life. He’s the reason why I want to be the best at everything I do in life.”

His sister, Jennifer, is his idol, pushing him to his limits and keeping him on a straight path in life, helping Bennedict grieve his late brother’s loss through their shared love of sport. Jennifer, who played four seasons with the powerful North Carolina State women’s basketball program and is currently an associate coach with Bishop’s University women’s team, was bigger and stronger than Benedict growing up, putting him through tough drills and showing him what he was capable of. It is her who Mathurin credits for instilling a mental fortitude and sense of confidence that sets him apart from other prospects his age. “My oldest sister is the reason why I’m confident in life,” he says. “She put me through the worst scenarios. So, I faced a lot of things back then that brought a lot of confidence in me.”

According to NBA Academy Latin America technical director Walter Roese, it’s that confidence that sets Mathurin apart from his peers.

“I think the majority of the players [who attend the NBA Academy] have the dream to make the NBA. Maybe not many have the attitude or the discipline to get there,” Roese said. “I think Benn is a kid who always believed in himself. His self-esteem is very high, not to a point to be [arrogant] but he just really believes in himself.”

Through all of life’s challenges, Mathurin has persevered and kept his belief in himself. That is part of the reason why he has such a strong connection with fellow Montreal-native Dort, who worked his way up from undrafted prospect to playing a key role on both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Canadian men’s national team.

“I feel like if Lu did it, I can do it, too. And seeing where he comes from and all the struggles he’s been through — it wasn’t easy for him just like for me — so I feel like seeing him doing well, the way he created a path for himself to go to the NBA… just motivates me to achieve my dream,” Mathurin said.

“It seemed like they had a great relationship,” Team Canada coach Nathaniel Mitchell said of Mathurin and Dort. “When we were at training camp, Dort would come over to him and say, ‘Hey, make sure you’re doing this. Make sure you’re doing that.’ And just trying to help guide him along, kind of like a big brother role that you play, especially being from Montreal. So, I did see them have a really good relationship. And I’m pretty sure they speak all the time. Those guys really pull for each other.”

Mathurin said Dort is the player he is most looking forward to playing against in the NBA, hoping to set the record straight on who is the “big bro” and who is the “little bro.”  But there also exists the possibility of the two playing together, if not in the NBA, then possibly for their country.

Mathurin suited up for the U19 Canadian team last summer at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Latvia, helping them win a bronze medal by averaging 16.1 points per game in the tournament. But earlier that summer, Mathurin had a chance to train with the senior team as they made their final cuts for the last-chance Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria B.C., where Mathurin stood out as he went toe-to-toe with a stacked rotation of two-guards including Nickeil Alexander-Walker, RJ Barrett, Michael Mulder and Andrew Wiggins, who Mathurin had to guard in practice. The experience was eye-opening not just for Mathurin, who learned a lot in the camp, but also for head coach Nick Nurse and the coaching staff, who had to reconsider if an 18-year-old Mathurin was maybe closer to making the senior team than they originally thought.

“He is very confident. I don’t think he came in there with the thought process of, ‘Oh let me just get this opportunity just to be here.’ He came in there trying to play,” Mitchell said of Mathurin. “I think the first two days, we were like, ‘Guys, we got to take a look at this guy.’ He was playing well … The coaches were really, really impressed. They were impressed with his athleticism, his size and his ability to shoot the ball.”

Mathurin says it is a goal of his to make the senior national team and go to the Olympics one day. But for now, he’s focused on this Thursday, when he will likely hear his name called in the top 10 of the 2022 NBA Draft, becoming the first Montreal-born player to have that honour.

Mathurin wants to land on a team that prioritizes winning above all else. He wants to have an impact right away and help his team win, even as a rookie. That’s a rare thing for a rookie to do.

But one look at Mathurin tells you all you need to know: that he is ready to take on that challenge.

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