4 players I like, but I’m worried about

It’s back-to-school season, and I have a toddler about to start preschool. I’m excited for him but also fretting about how he’ll adjust. Will he make friends? Will he behave? Will he stop saying his new favorite word, “booty?” I don’t know, but I’m hoping for the best!

Today, we’re here to talk about worries.

Sports worries, thankfully, are a different breed. I’m not stressed about Bennedict Mathurin’s inability to run a functional pick-and-roll, but I am concerned as a Mathurin fan. I want the players I like to be the best version of themselves, but the players on this list haven’t gotten there for various reasons.

It might be their postseason play, skill development (or lack thereof), health, a poor surrounding environment, or some combination of the above.

Again: I want to reiterate that I genuinely like all these players and have high hopes for them! This isn’t a teardown article; it’s simply me pointing out reasons for my concern. Let’s go.

1) Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

I’m on record as loving Bennedict Mathurin since his trash-talking, shoulder-dropping, bucket-getting rookie Summer League. He was an out-of-the-box scorer whose dogged pursuit of the hoop led to historic free throw rates for rookies his size, a valuable skill that should only shine brighter as he gets older.

The three-point shot regressed as the season went on, but I believe he’ll eventually become a good shooter from deep, and potentially a great one. So why am I concerned?

Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player get actively worse at passing as the season went on.

He averaged only 1.5 assists per game; his lowest output was in March, when he barely cracked one. It’s almost impossible to average one assist per game as a guard.

Scorers can develop tunnel vision; if they make enough shots, that’s okay! Sometimes, someone has to force the issue on offense. But Mathurin’s assist-to-usage ratio was in the 3rd percentile for wings. Among rotation players, that beat only Kelly Oubre and famous non-passer Michael Porter Jr. He had the same mark as centers Clint Capela and Damian Jones. Yikes.

Too many Pacers possessions looked like this, with Mathurin launching a difficult contested shot with five opponents in the paint instead of finding open teammates:

Oshae Brissett, #12, is not raising the roof in excitement.

Becoming a better passer will also open up lanes for his bulldozer drives. Indiana has plenty of shooting to make opposing gamblers pay if Mathurin would just send the invoice.

This isn’t unsalvageable. By all accounts, Mathurin is coachable and a hard worker. I don’t think it’s an unwillingness to pass so much as lackluster court vision and creativity. Contrary to what many people think, though, passing feel is improvable. Great passers are born, but plenty of good ones have been made, and Mathurin is about to enter his second season. He’ll naturally improve with age and experience; the magnitude of that improvement might determine his ultimate ceiling.

2) Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

Fultz had by far the best season of his career last season, averaging career-bests in (*takes breath*) minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and more.

He also, most crucially, hit 60 games in a season for the second time in his career. I know that you know that Fultz has been injury-prone since his baffling rookie year, but to put it another way: this is only the second time Fultz has played more than 20 games in his six-year career. That’s unbelievable.

So last year, all in all, seemed great! But I’m more convinced than ever that Fultz isn’t the long-term answer in Orlando.

Fultz had a negative on/off point differential and a negative Estimated Plus/Minus. He shot the ball quite efficiently inside the arc, where his size and athleticism are a positional plus, but he barely even looks at the three-point line: 1.5 attempts per game, about on par with Jonas Valanciunas.

It’s one thing not to shoot threes (albeit a very, very damaging thing for a ball-dominant guard); it’s another also not to shoot free throws. Fultz only averages 2.4 freebie attempts per game. It’s even stranger because Fultz has been a good free-throw shooter for most of his career. This shouldn’t be a Ben Simmons case where he’s worried about missing (but maybe it is! With Fultz, who is to say?).

Fultz seemingly spends half the game dribbling under the hoop, looking for cutters or relocating shooters. I’d like to see him utilize his athleticism more and force the issue at the rim. Here, the pass from Harris is late, but Fultz doesn’t even pretend to turn around and see if there’s room for him to attack (and he also misses a wide-open Cole Anthony in the corner):

If a player isn’t attempting threes and isn’t getting to the free-throw line, it’s hard to maximize an offense without superior shooting at every other position. And Orlando hasn’t been associated with “superior shooting” since the Dwight Howard days.

The Magic have a potent point-forward in future superstar Paolo Banchero and another more-than-capable secondary playmaker in Franz Wagner. Those two are the future, and more offense must be run through them at Fultz’s expense.

Fultz’s strengths are legitimate. He excels at getting past the first line of defense and getting the defender on his back, where he can survey the floor patiently and find the open man. He’s an artist with the dump-off, doing some of his best work within the tight corridors of the paint:

Fultz is a significantly better passer than his 5.7 assists per game and 29% assist rate would indicate. He’s also turned into a solid guard defender with a nose for the ball. If he can stay healthy, it wouldn’t shock me to see him competing for All-Defensive votes down the line.

That brings up my final concern, however, which is health. Two seasons out of six with more than 20 games is unbelievable. Maybe last year is the new normal, and he’ll be a reliable contributor going forward. But given his allergy to free throws, refusal to attempt threes, and injury concerns, Orlando should be looking to sell high-ish now.

I enjoy Fultz’s game immensely, and he is a valuable player…somewhere. But I don’t think he or the Magic are setting each other up for future success.

3) Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets

Sengun is an offensive dynamo, whipping out never-before-seen footwork combinations (not always legally; he was sixth in the league in traveling violations) and attempting outrageous passes on the regular.

He’s a beast on the offensive glass, and his snake-quick hands generate a surprising number of steals and deflections. Sure, he’s not a traditional defensive anchor, but Nikola Jokic isn’t, either.

Sengun is a good player even with his limitations. But the Rockets’ new coach Ime Udoka might not be the best helmsman to captain Sengun’s ship.

Udoka is a tough-nosed, old-school kind of coach who loves rim protection. The Rockets were in heavy pursuit of Brook Lopez this summer, and although it didn’t pan out, it’s pretty clear that Udoka and the front office don’t believe in Sengun as the long-term solution at center.

That is partially because the Rockets are filled with a bunch of shoot-first players. Sengun begs to be used as a playmaking hub à la Domantas Sabonis, but the Rockets haven’t shown enough inclination in the past to play off of or through him. And if Sengun isn’t a focal point of the offense, his best skills are wasted.

Playing in one of the worst offensive ecosystems in basketball for the last two years has taken a toll on Sengun’s mentality, too. It doesn’t really show up in the statistics, but to my eyes, he seemed to be hunting his own shot more often, likely in response to never getting the ball back once he gave it up.

In the grand pecking order of the Houston youth movement, Sengun is, at best, third or fourth. Shooting guard Jalen Green is the player most likely to become a star. Rookie Amen Thompson flashed in his brief Summer League debut (but can’t shoot well enough to be a snug fit next to Sengun). And last year’s third overall pick, Jabari Smith Jr., had a scintillating Summer League that presages a much higher offensive burden (likely at Sengun’s expense).

I would love to see Sengun in an environment with more defensive help and better spacing and passing around him. I don’t know what Sengun’s ceiling is — Nikola Vucevic? Domantas Sabonis? Poor man’s Nikola Jokic? — but I don’t think we’ll find it with the current Rockets’ roster and coach.

4) Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Kuminga can look like a wildly different player depending on when you catch him. Sometimes, he’s a high-flying, snarling, two-way monster, wreaking havoc on defense and tearing up opponents in transition. He developed nicely as a cutter and started to find ways to attack the openings left in Steph and Klay’s wake:

At other times, he’s almost useless on offense and literally lost on defense. Someone needs to give the poor guy a map here:

Golden State’s complicated systems on both ends aren’t for everyone. So far, Kuminga has struggled to plug himself into Golden State’s hive mind.

How much of this is due to Kuminga’s inconsistency, turnover-prone tendencies, and inability to gel with his veteran teammates? How much blame do we assign to coach Steve Kerr for his quick hook and reluctance to trust Kuminga? Impossible to say.

On paper, Kuminga’s shooting accuracy improved, particularly from the corners. But he didn’t attempt many, so it’s hard to know if that would hold up over time. He’s a strong player but has trouble with his handle in traffic. He frequently gets the ball knocked away or gets jostled into forcing a bad pass:

At his best, Kuminga can be a lockdown defender, although he still fouls too much. Experience would be the best teacher here, but Kuminga can’t seem to stay out of Kerr’s doghouse.

Golden State’s roster seemingly thins further every year; at some point, they’ll be forced to play Kuminga steady minutes because they simply don’t have enough NBA-caliber bodies. Whether those minutes would be for development or to bolster trade value is unclear.

You can’t teach Kuminga’s raw physical tools, and if nothing else, there’s a strong defensive foundation to build upon. But if Golden State isn’t willing to invest in him, I’d love to see another team take the plunge and grab him before his confidence is completely shot.

For more players I love but am worried about, check out www.BasketballPoetry.com!

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.