Potential Lost

Project Spurs would like to introduce Mr. Lance Fell. In his first post, he takes a look back at the rise and fall of Ian Mahinmi.  He also gives his thoughts on what the Spurs should do to salvage Ian’s career with the Spurs.

By Lance Fell

Sam Presti, assistant General Manager of the San Antonio Spurs, liked what he saw on the court in Europe that summer. He saw a player who was physical, played bothends of the court, and had tremendous speed. His offensive skills were a little rough around the edges, but the potential was too great to ignore. So the Spurs drafted an unknown, 19-year-old Frenchman with the 28th overall pick. No, I’m not talking about Tony Parker.

I’m talking about 6-foot-11, 230-pound center Ian Mahinmi.

Presti was impressed by Mahinmi’s play at the 2004 U-18 European Championship Tournament. In the final round of the tournament, Mahinmi averaged a modest 7 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.  With David Robinson retired, the Spurs were in the market for another athletic big man who could fulfill the role Robinson had left vacant. So in 2005, the Spurs drafted the rights to Mahinmi.

The Spurs let Mahinmi continue to develop his game overseas. Mahinmi, a member of the French national team, had been playing professionally for the French team Saint Thomas Basket Le Havre since 2003, when he was 17. In the 2005-2006 season, he posted his best averages with 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes of playing.  He was then selected to play in the French All-Star Game.

That summer, he played in the Rocky Mountain Review Summer League for the Spurs, and in six games averaged 8.3 points and 5.7 rebounds. He then signed with French powerhouse Elan Bearnais Pau Orthez, whose alumni include Boris Diaw of the Charlotte Bobcats and Mickael Pietrus of the Orlando Magic, for a chance to compete against NBA caliber talent. That season, in 12.7 minutes of play, Mahinmi averaged 4.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.

Again the potential seen in Mahinmi was too big to ignore, and the Spurs signed him on August 23, 2007.

Mahinmi played in six of the first 11 games for the Spurs in the 2007-2008 season. Those would be the only games he would play for the Spurs that season. His averages for the Spurs, a pedestrian 3.5 points per game in 3.8 minutes played.

But the 2007-2008 season was anything but a bust for Mahinmi. On November 21st he was assigned to San Antonio’s NBDL affiliate, the Austin Toros, and his impact was immediately felt throughout the D-League. Mahinmi started all 45 games he played for the Toros, with a stat line of 17.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals and two blocks in 30 minutes per game. He made the D-League All First Team and led the Toros to the D-League finals. In the finals, Mahinmi averaged 16.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.67 blocks per game.

It seemed that Mahinmi could put the word “potential” behind him. His once unrefined offensive game was beginning to mature and the 2008-2009 season was sure to be one in which he could take his place in the Spurs rotation.

Unfortunately for Mahinmi and the Spurs organization, he suffered a sprained ankle in training camp. Preseason rolled around and the swelling and pain in his ankle didn’t go away. Eventually, he had exploratory surgery to find out what was wrong with his ankle and a piece of bone was found lodged in his ankle. The surgery would cost him the season.

“The disappointment is that Ian can’t play,” Gregg Popovich told the San  
Antonio Express News in 2008. “He was going to get 35 to 38 minutes a game to see how far he had come. He came a long way last year in the D-League. We wanted to see that.”

The Spurs frontcourt that season consisted of Tim Duncan, Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto, Matt Bonner and for a short time Drew Gooden. It would be safe to say that Mahinmi would have definitely played 35 to 38 minutes had it not been for the injury. His youth and athleticism alone would have guaranteed him a spot in the rotation.

Coming into this season, the Spurs made huge changes to their roster and added much needed depth to their frontcourt. With the additions of veteran big men Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff, and up and coming rookie DeJuan Blair, those valued minutes are all but gone. It’s hard for a young player, with a rough and unpolished game, to get any minutes on a veteran team with championship aspirations.

But Mahinmi did impress a lot of people in training camp, including new Spur, Antonio McDyess. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this guy is good,’” said McDyess. “I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about him. I love his game.”

Mahinmi has not been activated for a single game this season. In fact the Spurs did not offer him a contract extension. But now more than ever, the Spurs should give him the chance to play. He has proven that with a steady diet of minutes, he can be a good NBA player.

Spurs fans have grown weary of Mahinmi and know his days with the silver and black may be over.  They have waited four years for him to finally fulfill the potential they have heard so much about. Perhaps they have grown tired of people talking about how “athletic” and how “physically gifted” he is and want to see him in action.

I suggest the Spurs coaching staff take a page out of the development of other current big men in the NBA.  For example, Andrew Bynum. He was drafted at 17-years-old, in the same draft Mahinmi was drafted in. When drafted, there were questions about his ability to stay focused. Bynum had the athletic frame and the talent, but it was still unknown if he would be able to contribute. However, the Lakers front office still drafted him, and with a couple years of learning the game from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,  he has solidified himself as one of the up and coming big men in the league. All it took was a healthy dose of minutes and some tutelage from a Hall of Famer.

The Spurs have a Hall of Famer of their own, who can put Mahinmi under his wing and teach the true beauty of the game — David Robinson.

Robinson is the perfect man for this task. Teaching the outside game and back to the basket moves would only help Mahinmi. Robinson’s positive personality and leadership qualities could also rub off on him.

If this is Mahinmi’s last season with the Spurs, then so be it. But why not give him a chance to learn from one of the greatest centers of all time. The Lakers did it for Bynum, and he could be on his way to becoming an All Star. Even Kobe Bryant took time to learn from NBA Hall of Famer, Hakeem Olajuwon.

Mahinmi just turned 23, and with more time and guidance, he can be a productive member of the Spurs rotation. I just hope the Spurs feel the same way. What was once a looked liked a potential lost, could be potential rediscovered.

Please leave us your thoughts on Ian Mahinimi’s time with the Spurs and if his career can be salvaged.

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