For Mahinmi, this year will define his future

No recent draft pick by the Spurs defines their ability to confound the rest of the league and their fans like the selection of Ian Mahinmi in 2005. When the 28th pick rolled around and Mahinmi’s name was called, it sent the media searching for any information on him. Of the 128 players listed in the draft media guide, Mahinmi’s name could not be found. Much like the selection of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, it appeared as if the Spurs had mined the foreign leagues for a diamond in the rough.

It’s four years later and that diamond still is not cut and polished. The question at this point is if Mahinmi will ever develop into the productive big man that he has shown flashes of becoming.

The appeal of Mahinmi was obvious from the beginning. When he was drafted as an 18-year-old, Mahinmi stood 6’10” and weighed 220 pounds with quickness and a good vertical. For a franchise without an athletic big man since David Robinson, which has not changed, Mahinmi was intriguing. Since then he has added another inch and 20 pounds.

Since drafting Mahinmi the Spurs have gone through a number of big men, including Nazr Mohammad, Robert Horry, Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas and Drew Gooden. All were temporary solutions and none were able to satisfy the Spurs desire for an athletic big man.

That’s where Mahinmi comes in…sort of.

After the draft Mahinmi spent two years playing overseas since he was still very raw skill-wise and also physically. In 2007 he finally came to America and began teasing Spurs fans with his athleticism while playing for the Austin Toros in the D-League.

The Spurs have been looking for a certain type of big man for years, and it’s no different this year. They have needed an athletic player who could rebound well, block shots, defend the stronger centers as well as quicker big men like Amare Stoudemire, and score the occasional basket. While this might sound like too much to ask for, Mahinmi has displayed the potential to become that player.

Mahinmi dominated the NBDL in his first season with the Toros, averaging 16.8 points, 8 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.4 steals and shot 61.5%. At the end of the season he was named to the All-D-League First Team. Mahinmi displayed his athleticism and made fans pine for him to head south to San Antonio.

Last season was supposed to be his chance. He had proven that he could dominate the NBDL. Now it was time for him to prove that he could contribute at the highest level.

Plans rarely ever play out flawlessly. The Spurs plans for Mahinmi were no exception. He sprained his ankle in October. The sprain then turned into a chipped bone, which then required surgery. When all was said and done, Mahinmi had watched basketball from the sideline for a whole year.

This is an important season for Mahinmi. The Spurs have until October 31 to decide if they want to exercise Mahinmi’s fourth year option or make him a free agent after this season. Mahinmi has used up his NBDL eligibility, so he will have to impress the Spurs this summer and in training camp.

Can Mahinmi fulfill his potential and become that elusive athletic big man the Spurs need?

It’s hard to say. At 22-years-old Mahinmi is essentially a rookie. It’s easy to forget this. It’s also easy to forget that he hasn’t played a competitive basketball game in nearly a year. Some rustiness at this point is understandable.

There is no denying Mahinmi’s appeal. Besides his height and fluid athleticism, Mahinmi has shown rapid improvement during his time with the Toros. He has a nice shooting form on his free throws, making 77% during his season with the Toros, which indicates that he could have a solid mid-range shot. He also has shown some nice low post moves including a jump-hook shot. Also, Mahinmi routinely beats his man down court with his superior speed, leading to easy basket opportunities.

However, there are glaring holes with his game. First, he fouls like it’s his mission. He blocks shots and gets steals from his athleticism but is undisciplined defensively. Some of these fouls come from over aggression, which I’m okay with, but it is part of his game that he needs to work on. Also, Mahinmi is not always explosive on the offensive end despite his athleticism like he should be, sometimes looking mechanical with his moves. Physically he still has much work to do. His upper body is well developed but his legs are like toothpicks, causing him to struggle to hold position in the post against bigger players.

Mahinmi also finds two more obstacles – Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair. Splitter is considered the best big man in Europe and Blair already looks more NBA ready with superior rebounding ability.

To receive significant minutes this year and guarantee a spot with the Spurs for the future, Mahinmi will have to show that his body is healthy, ready to play at the NBA level and a commitment to develop his lower body. He will have to show that he can use his athleticism to rebound and defend the other team’s premier big man.

With his speed, quickness, jumping ability and youth, Mahinmi has potential to earn regular minutes with the Spurs. Right now he is the biggest unknown heading into the season. However, the Spurs have waited four years for him to develop. How much longer are they willing to wait? This season will go a long way in determining that question.

About Michael A. De Leon

Michael founded Project Spurs in 2004. He started The Spurscast, the first Spurs podcast on the Internet, in 2005. Michael has been interviewed by the BBC, SportTalk, the Sports Reporters Radio Show, MemphisSportLive, OKC Sports Wrap and ESPN radio among others. He is a credentialed member of the media for the San Antonio Spurs and Austin Toros. He is also the founder of Project Spurs' sister sites, Toros Nation and Stars Hoops.

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