Ian Mahinmi fully expects the time to come when he will feel and play like himself again, when he is no longer betrayed by his body and he is able to move and jump like before to provide the Washington Wizards with a different big-man option to close games. Until then, Mahinmi must reconcile with the present and those surgically repaired knees that force him to react too slowly, that make him feel less certain and more careful.
Mahinmi, the highest-paid recruit of the Wizards’ 2016 free agent class, recently candidly addressed the start of his 2017-18 season — the toughest in his 11 years in the NBA.
“It’s challenging. I’m not going to say it’s been the best time of my career. It’s been challenging,” Mahinmi said. “I’m fortunate to have great teammates. A great coaching staff to keep me positive. It’s a tough stretch, but I’m going to keep working. Keep working and keep getting better and getting back to myself as soon as possible.”
Mahinmi underwent multiple knee procedures last season, and the effects have lasted well into the start of this season. Playing primarily to anchor the second unit, Mahinmi’s defensive rating exceeded 105 in the first 18 games of the season. But recently, Mahinmi has found his way.
While all-star point guard John Wall has sat out the past four games to rest his left knee, the Wizards (12-10) have survived behind the surprising strength of their bench — and must continue to do so ahead of a 10-day, five-game road trip that begins against the Utah Jazz on Monday — and Mahinmi’s overdue contributions.
In this small sample size, Washington has outscored opponents by 9.3 points with Mahinmi on the floor, the second best plus/minus number among the regular rotation players. And it has nothing to do with Mahinmi being a fifth scoring option while on the floor — in the first 18 games, he shot 46.7 percent compared to 35.7 percent over the last four.
“I’ve never been the one to take the ball and go score one-on-one,” Mahinmi said.
Instead, Mahinmi’s production has picked up on the defensive end where he has produced a 101.9 rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the past four games.
During this stretch, Mahinmi has defended some of the best young bigs in the game. He kept Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns in check in the fourth quarter to secure a Wizards win on Tuesday, and the next night he again played the entire final frame while contending with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before his rival fouled out.
For stretches in Friday’s game against the Detroit Pistons, Mahinmi faced Andre Drummond, whose 14 points and 17 rebounds didn’t have a devastating impact as the Wizards won, 109-91. Although Mahinmi did not play the entirety of the fourth, he came up with a big defensive play by blocking Tobias Harris at the rim early in the quarter when Washington led by only five points.
Moments like that have justified Coach Scott Brooks’s persistence in sticking with Mahinmi. Mahinmi has not missed a game this season and rarely has been removed from his rotation minutes — although Brooks substituted Jason Smith for Mahinmi in the second half of a Nov. 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
“He wants to play better. We want him to play better, but I look at things a little different,” Brooks said. “I’m not looking at him to score. I’m looking for him to set good screens and defend. He hasn’t made his layups like he’s made last year, and hopefully we can start making some of those. But other than that, he’s a defensive guy and he helps our defense.”
Through the first 18 games, Mahinmi admitted that he had been out of sorts, nothing like the player the Wizards committed to pay $64 million over four years. He places the blame squarely on his knees, which suddenly became a problem for the first time in his career last year.
Last October, Mahinmi underwent surgery on his left knee. Then, last December, Mahinmi flew to Florida to have platelet-rich plasma injections on both knees.
“It’s a whole lot going on in my body,” Mahinmi said. “It’s just I’m living it, I’m going through it. It’s hard. Whatever you think it is, it’s still not the way your body reacts.”
Before the start of the season, Mahinmi had another minor knee procedure that limited him from summer basketball work. He returned to the Wizards with a slimmer frame but did not look sharp after an abbreviated training camp. The rust carried into the regular season, and Mahinmi became a popular target over the first 18 games.
“It’s a lot going on. Guys from the outside, they only see what they see,” Mahinmi said, pausing to take a deep breath. “I’ve been dealing with a whole lot of stuff. It’s a tough time, you know, that people have a hard time really understanding why. ‘Why is that? Change that. We got to get rid of him, whatever, whatever.’
“But you can’t really get too caught up into that stuff,” Mahinmi continued. ” I know what type of player I am. I know I work every day. I know I work hard and I know what I bring to the team. It’s a long season. Sometimes you have great starts. Sometimes you have tough starts, and for me it’s a tough start.”
With the first quarter of the season in the past, Mahinmi still feels he is not where he wants to be but believes that day will come.
“This will turn. I will turn to form. My body feel like the way it’s supposed to feel, you’ll see me like I was last year at the end,” Mahinmi said. “I’ll get back to that.”
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