Don’t Yawn. Mahinmi’s Improvement is Impressive

This has been a season of change for the Pacers, a year of transition: going from exclusively using slow, traditional lineups to having the flexibility of using both faster spread lineups and traditional lineups and from having an elite defense that forces inefficient mid-range shots to sending out an above average defense that forces a lot of turnovers; Paul George has returned and is better than ever. C.J. Miles is playing as a stretch four after 10 years of being a wing. There are seven players on the roster that were not on the Pacers a year ago. George Hill is blonde. Out of all of this sudden change, none of it has been more surprising than the vast improvement of everything in Ian Mahinmi’s offensive skill set.

Shooting. Passing. Dribbling. Catching. Footwork. You name it; Ian Mahinmi got better at it over the off-season, an incredible feat for a veteran entering his eighth season in the Association.

“He worked so hard,” Hill told the Indianapolis Star, “and you’re seeing the results.”

The results: Mahinmi is averaging career highs in basically all of the traditional statistics: points (8.0), rebounds (6.8), assists (1.5), steals (1.0) and blocks (1.3), but Mahinmi’s improvement is about more than just raw statistics. He’s gone from a zero at best on the offensive end to when he does touch the ball, you don’t groan in anticipation of the impending disaster. Ian is now a capable player on that end of the court. Here’s how he’s reached that point:

The Mid-Range: “I shot three or four hours a day this offseason,” Mahinmi told the Indianapolis Star. “I made 1,000 shots every day.”

Mahinmi’s shooting stroke has looked smooth and confident this season. How did it look last year? Well, just watch this clip:

After failing to find anyone to pass the ball too, Mahinmi reluctantly takes a shot with the shot clock winding down and throws up an airball that nightmares are made of.

Fast forward to the present and watch what Mahinmi does immediately when he catches the pass at the elbow from Paul George.

With six seconds remaining on the shot clock, Mahinmi immediately goes into his shot with confidence and nails it. Nothing’s going to explain his improvement in this area better than those two videos.

For comparison, here’s what Mahinmi’s shot charts look like for the last two seasons:

2014-15 Season
2015-16 Season

Last season, Ian took only 16 mid-range shots all year and made only three; this year, he’s already taken 14 and has made half of those attempts.

As for his much-maligned free throw percentage that sat at 30% last season, Mahinmi has improved to 50% to date. After starting the season terribly by making only 5 of 24 from the stripe (21%), Mahinmi has made a very respectable 24 of 32 (75%) since.

Pick & Roll:

Mahinmi has also been a great asset on offense as a roll man in the pick and roll. While this wasn’t something you could expect to see the Pacers try with Mahinmi last season, it’s simply an improvement from what Pacers fans are used to seeing from their center on these plays.

These three dunks alone that all happened in one game are so refreshing to anyone that’s watched Roy Hibbert essentially refuse to use his very large body to dunk for seven years.

Mahinmi has been running the PnR often with Monta Ellis, and the results have been excellent so far (see above vine for two examples). Ellis and Mahinmi have the team’s highest 2-man net rating at 5.6 when they share the court. Ellis has been a big factor in Mahinmi’s improvement showing up in the box score with his great ability to set people up. Ian makes 70.3 percent of his shots when Ellis passes him the ball.

Passing, Catching, Dribbling:

Besides Ian’s great finishing ability this season as a roll man, he’s done a great job of doing positive things with the ball when he can’t just take two steps and slam it home. This alone would have been a fine improvement for Ian. Last season, it felt like anytime he touched the ball that nothing good was going to come from it. Mahinmi was only on the court for one reason in the past: play stellar defense by protecting the rim.

Now, Mahinmi is making beautiful passes when he catches the ball in the pick and roll but doesn’t have the opening to drive to the hole. When a defender collapses to Ian and leaves an open man in the corner, Mahinmi has shown a tremendous ability to recognize that and make accurate passes by immediately making a spinning jump pass after catching the ball. You can see an example of what I’m talking about here where he finds Monta Ellis spotting up.

While 1.5 assists per game doesn’t sound like much, it triples Mahinmi’s previous best average as a Pacer (0.5). In per 36 minutes numbers, Mahinmi has more than doubled his best effort (2.1 to 1.0). Mahinmi assists on 9.4% of all Pacers’ field goals when he’s on the court, while his previous high was only 4.4%. Further evidence of improved passing is that his TOV% is down from about 18% in each of the last three seasons to only 14% this season.

Mahinmi has also shown the ability to execute one dribble drives to the basket to score. It still surprises me when he does it. Just like it surprised Marc Gasol here:

Don’t think anyone could have ever expected Ian Mahinmi to pull this off from the top of the key while sprinting on a fast break last year:

Last, but not least: Ian can catch the ball now. I’ve seen him snag numerous passes already this season that I don’t think he holds on to last season. If the pass wasn’t perfect and soft, it was likely a turnover off Mahinmi’s hands in the past, but now even the passes that are slightly off have been routinely corralled by Ian.

In his first seven seasons in the league, Mahinmi started only 21 games. This season, the Pacers have played 22 games to this point, and #28 has started as the Pacers “man in the middle” for every one of them.

“To finally get to this point feels good,” Mahinmi recently told the Indianapolis Star. “I feel I’ve paid my dues. I finally found a place where I’m happy and my teammates are pulling for me.”

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