Mahinmi Quietly Raising His Game

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

February 26, 2014 | 12:10 a.m.

Ian Mahinmi is often overshadowed. The 6-foot-11 Frenchman is the unassuming understudy to 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ two-time All-Star center.

Mahinmi’s basic job description is to spell Hibbert for a couple five-to-seven minute stretches each game and bust his tail on defense, contesting any and all shots at the rim. If he can contribute a couple points here and there, that’s an added bonus.

The Pacers’ backup center is never going to light up the stat sheet like Paul George or Lance Stephenson. Even when Mahinmi collects a few blocks or rebounds, it is likely Hibbert outdid him in each category.

So it’s not surprising that even on Tuesday night – when Mahinmi had one of his best games of the season in Indiana’s 118-98 win over the listless Los Angeles Lakers – the spotlight shone on someone else in the Pacers locker room.

After the game, the media appropriately flocked to Evan Turner, the Pacers’ big trade deadline acquisition, who scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds in his first game with his new team. From there, they moved promptly to the locker of Paul George, who had an off night shooting and still managed a line of 20-7-6.

RELATED: Turner Makes Himself at Home »

While Mahinmi finished the night with nine points – his most in all of 2014 – he was outscored by seven of his teammates. But make no mistake, he made a significant impact in Tuesday’s win.

In 19:21, Mahinmi hit 4-of-7 shots, grabbed four offensive rebounds, dished out two assists, and blocked two shots. The Pacers were +17 with their backup center on the floor, eight points better than with any other bench player and six points better than they were in 24 minutes with Hibbert manning the middle.

It was the best performance in a month of strong contributions from the Pacers center. Mahinmi averaged 2.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks through the end of January. Since Feb. 1, he’s averaging 4.6 points, 4.0 boards, and 1.4 rejections. The sixth-year pro has scored in all 11 games this month, after going scoreless in 13 of his first 44 games.

The numbers only tell part of the story. Mahinmi has been playing with a clear aggressive mentality. Whether it was crashing the rim to tip in Luis Scola’s miss early in the second quarter or blocking Chris Kaman’s shot on one end and then attacking the Lakers’ center for a basket-plus-the-foul on the ensuing possession in the fourth, Mahinmi played with the same contentious energy he’s been displaying for the past several weeks.

“Lately I’ve been feeling well,” Mahinmi said after Tuesday’s game. “I’ve been feeling good defensively, blocking shots, being a defensive presence like I’ve been all year long. And offensively (I’ve been) feeling good. Like I said, my teammates find me. I’ve just got to be at the right (spot) at the right (time), and they find me.”

The elephant in the room is that Mahinmi’s strong play directly coincides with one of the Pacers’ recent acquisitions.

Feb. 1 is when the Pacers signed one-time All-Star center Andrew Bynum. If and when the 7-footer gets healthy (he’s still a couple weeks away from being ready for game action), it has been assumed that Bynum would take Mahinmi’s spot in the rotation.

But when Mahinmi was asked Tuesday if Bynum’s signing had lit a fire under him, he chuckled.

“That has nothing to do with it,” he said. “My focus is on this team. It’s not one guy, it’s not on me. My focus is on how can I get this team better, what can I do to improve this team. Bynum has nothing to do with that.

“Of course, I’ll do anything to keep my playing time. At the same time, I don’t want to change my game. I want to keep playing my game and be great at what I do and help the team win the most games possible.”

If Mahinmi keeps playing his game like he has the past month, Bynum’s place in the rotation is far from assured. Having three capable centers is the rarest of luxuries in the NBA, and Pacers coach Frank Vogel will gladly take the headaches of figuring out how to deal with too much depth over how to deal with too little.

Mahinmi is in just his second year with the Pacers, but with all the teams moves in the offseason and the past couple weeks, the Frenchman is suddenly Indiana’s longest-tenured player aside from the five starters. As such, Mahinmi has taken on a bit more of a leadership role in the Pacers locker room, where he is well-liked and widely-respected.

Unlike the starters, Mahinmi knows firsthand what it takes to win a championship, having been a part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Mahinmi doesn’t care who gets the attention. All he wants is another ring.

"We have one goal, and it’s going to take every one of us," Mahinmi said. "It can’t be about one guy. It’s got to be a team thing."

College Night Pres. by Indiana National Guard
College students get a game ticket and free Pacers gift for $10