“Right now, I’m rolling,” Mahinmi said of his recent comeback from an Achilles’ injury.
Mahinmi, in the final season of a four-year contract with the Wizards, will be the team’s only traditional big man available Saturday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.
After missing all of training camp and the first 19 games of the season while rehabilitating, the 33-year-old Mahinmi has suddenly appeared as the cavalry for the center position. Bryant is dealing with a stress reaction in his right foot, and Wagner is expected to miss his third game of the month.
“He’s definitely a factor,” Coach Scott Brooks said of Mahinmi. “When he’s healthy, he protects the rim, and we’re a better defensive team when he’s out there. Hopefully we can keep his minutes up at a good number and keep playing well. He’s going to definitely help us.”
In three games, Mahinmi has contributed in many ways on the defensive end. He has five blocks in 51 minutes, and every time he has walked off the court at the end of his rotation, Mahinmi has left the Wizards in better shape. In each appearance, Mahinmi has registered at least a plus-five rating.
“He’s been great the first couple of games. Just his presence, his activeness, his long arms, his altering shots at the rim,” guard Bradley Beal said. “He’s catching on the roll; he’s finishing. So he’s doing a lot of things that we kind of missed a lot. We didn’t have that rim protector in a way. He’s blocking shots. He’s altering shots at the rim. He’s rebounding.”
Additionally, the Wizards have an 88.6 defensive rating in the games Mahinmi has been on the court. The only question — and it’s one that has dominated Mahinmi’s time in Washington — is can he stay off the injured list?
Since 2016, when he signed the four-year, $64 million contract, Mahinmi has appeared in 145 of a possible 269 regular season games, or 54 percent. Though Mahinmi is Beal’s longest-tenured active teammate, the two have spent a relatively short time together on the court.
Bryant has a more dominant role as a starter, while Mahinmi has mostly been a backup. Still, the difference between the time Beal has spent on the court with the two big men is jarring. Bryant barely made it to the quarter pole of this season, and he has already logged 497 minutes with Beal on the court, just seven minutes fewer than the season high for Mahinmi with Beal (2017-18).
“Ian has had some tough luck with injuries ever since Day 1,” Brooks said. “That’s the frustrating thing about sports for players and coaches and fans. You want to give yourself the best chance to win, and you want your players to be healthy. He didn’t come in [here], when we signed him, hoping that he would miss a lot of games. He was hoping that he would have the impact [in] the reason we signed him.”
Injuries aside, Mahinmi has still contributed to the Wizards’ locker room even when he hasn’t been playing. Because he and Rui Hachimura share a common background — their fathers hail from Benin — Mahinmi has planned to prepare a Beninese meal one day for the rookie. He believes in listening more than doling out advice and has initiated conversations about life with other younger players, such as Isaac Bonga. At the start of games, however, Mahinmi has been more chatty as the one teammate who leans into the ear of a starter and offers encouragement before tip-off.
Through his three-plus years, Mahinmi’s effect has gone beyond his on-court results. Even so, Mahinmi doesn’t hide the fact that injuries have played a significant role in his story in Washington.
“Nothing needs to be erased in my career, whatever the ups and downs are,” Mahinmi said. “On this journey called life, there’s a lot of ups and downs. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I take the bumps. I take the bruises. I take the heat. I take the fire. I take the everything. At some point, like they say, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”