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Now healthy, Ian Mahinmi is proving his value to the Wizards

NBA: Washington Wizards at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Signing Ian Mahinmi was a gamble in large part because the big man was coming off a career-best year at 29 years old. Players typically get worse in their thirties, and with just one great year out of the eight he played in the league, Mahinmi seemed like a good candidate for regression with the Wizards.

Still, it was a contract you could talk yourself into. Mahinmi was a good pick and roll player in his later years with the Pacers, and he was the kind of player who could anchor a defense. Plus, having a backup who could play heavy minutes would let Marcin Gortat stay fresh for the playoffs as he entered what would likely be the latter years of his career.

You all known what happened next: Mahinmi had knee trouble that kept him out of 50 of the Wizards’ first 51 games of the season. He returned to the lineup in mid-February, at the end of one of the team’s hottest win streaks in recent memory.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise he would be rusty coming off of knee surgery, but Mahinmi looked especially rough in his first few games back. His four-year contract started to look burdensome for a capped-out team like Washington.

But now that he’s shaken off the rust, we’re starting to see the real value he brings to the Wizards. His talents were on full display Tuesday night against Phoenix. He played a season-high 25 minutes, scoring an efficient 15 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and getting a career-high seven steals. He owned the paint, no matter how big or small the Suns tried to play against him.

Just as it was easy to overreact to his slow start, it was easy to start dreaming big. So it’s time to take a step back: What can we actually expect from Ian Mahinmi this year?

The defensive stalwart he was paid to be

Mahinmi’s career year as a pick and roll weapon for the Pacers’ probably played a role in the big payday he received from the Wizards, but he was primarily brought to Washington to play defense. And defend he has.

But a lot of Mahinmi’s value defensively comes away from the rim. Centers switching on to guards is never ideal, but it is sometimes inevitable. Mahinmi has surprising mobility for a big man, and it doesn’t look like his knee surgery has taken that away. That same speed also allows him to recover quickly after he helps, which is crucial with the Wizards’ perimeter defenders tendency to pressure ball handlers and gamble for steals.

The downside? Mahinmi is incredibly foul prone. This isn’t new, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have gotten any better. He has committed 30 fouls in just 205 minutes this year, an average of 5.3 per 36 minutes. The Wizards still have other options who can fill the void at center when he gets in foul trouble, but it’s still an unfortunate flaw in Mahinmi’s otherwise very well-rounded defensive game.

Out of sync with the offense

Chemistry matters. It’s common to see brand new superteams stumble out of the gate as players learn to work with their new teammates, and teams with long-intact cores punch above their weight. Some of the success of the Wizards’ starting unit this season can be attributed to the familiarity the starters have developed with each other over the years.

Mahinmi hasn’t had the opportunity to build much chemistry with his new teammates yet, and it shows with every fumbled pass, awkward pick and roll, or defensive miscommunication.

It also shows up when you look at how he’s getting his shots, too: Throughout his career, he has had 70 percent of his field goals assisted. Last season, that number went up to 76 percent. With the Wizards, just 11 of his 19 makes have come on an assist.

The relationship between assists and effective field goal percentage isn’t as clear as you might expect. That caveat aside, Mahinmi has a limited ability to create his own shots. He was effective in the pick and roll last year (with per-possession numbers similar to Gortat’s), and he will almost certainly benefit from more time on the floor with the Wizards’ starting guards. Expect to see his field goal percentage to continue to trend in the right direction.

That said, it’s tough to make a big impact on offense when you’re a center without much of a post-up game or a jump shot. It’s unlikely Mahinmi will supplant Gortat in the starting lineup, so he won’t have much time to benefit from John Wall’s passing. The additions of Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic help, but it doesn’t replace what he’s missing by not playing with Wall more.

On top of that, Mahinmi has spent most of his career struggling from the free throw line. Despite some heavily hyped virtual reality training, it’s not clear that he will be any better this year, where he is free throw percentage is hovering around his career average (albeit with a small sample of 37 attempts).

This is the real Ian Mahinmi, more or less

Basketball is a team sport, and quantifying the effect of any one player is hard. Box score-based metrics measure a certain end point but don’t tell you anything about how you got there. Plus-minus-based metrics suffer from the fact that substitutions are not random and separating out the effect of one player from his teammates and opponents is challenging at best.

With that in mind, both box score and plus-minus-based defensive metrics have consistently rated Mahinmi has a good defensive player throughout his career, and occasionally a great one. Knee surgery certainly hasn’t robbed him of his strength, size, or basketball IQ, and it doesn’t look like he’s lost much in agility or lateral quickness either. He’s not going to keep picking pockets like he’s Kawhi Leonard, but it’s not unreasonable to expect him to have a bigger defensive impact than any other individual player on the roster.

How Mahinmi’s contract looks in hindsight will likely come down to offense, not defense. Mahinmi’s offense has been bad more years then it’s been good, but he’s put on a few fine showings so far this year and it’s easy to imagine how he could improve as he gels with his new teammates. The contract is what it is: He’ll live up to it or he won’t. As long as he can stay healthy, he’ll make an impact in Washington.