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Ian Mahinmi Has to Prove Himself Replacing Roy Hibbert for Pacers

Ian Mahinmi has been the Pacers’ backup to Roy Hibbert for the last three years, a time period in which Hibbert rose and fell as one of the league’s elite rim protectors. Indiana’s former starting center struggled with the league’s small-ball revolution and got shipped off to LA this summer after his relationship with the club became strained.

Hibbert’s absence leaves an obvious void for Mahinmi to fill as the team’s sole rim protector, since the team didn’t do much else to fill the gap. The Pacers would love for first-round pick Myles Turner to develop into a quick replacement for Hibbert, but he’s struggled with foul trouble even more than most young big men, so that’s hard to envision. The two veteran big men Indiana signed during the offseason, LaVoy Allen and Jordan Hill, aren’t great rim protectors either.

The SportVU numbers show that the Frenchman learned a thing or two about rim protection during his time backing up Hibbert, as he’s posted defensive field goal percentages at the rim of 44.7 in 2013-14 and 45.5 in 2014-15, both of which are pretty solid marks for a big man. Pacers coach Frank Vogel and his staff have done an excellent job of instilling the principles of verticality in Mahinmi as well, and although he’s less patient than Hibbert, he executes the concept effectively.

On the plus side, he’s more mobile than Hibbert, a quality that bodes well for defending the pick-and-roll alongside the Pacers’ newer, smaller personnel, as well as in transition. Mahinmi is pretty good about running the floor, and he and his teammates will be better getting up-and-down this year in general.

Unfortunately, Mahinmi’s positives as a player largely end there, which is OK for a bench player, but somewhat concerning when asked to serve a starter-like role.

There are nights on defense when Mahinmi simply looks out of sync, slow to rotate on defense and playing more with his hands than his feet and body. The hands problem also carries over to offense in a bad way, where he’s prone to drops and a general inability to be trusted near the basketball. Synergy had him in the 11th percentile among roll men in terms of points scored in the pick-and-roll, so he’s obviously not a great finisher either.

That became a larger issue last season, when he suddenly lost his ability to shoot free throws en route to a 30 percent clip. Mahinmi had a career mark of slightly higher than 60 percent prior to then, but something shifted the wrong way in his brain last year, and teams employed a Hack-a-Ian strategy regularly down the stretch against Indiana.

That’s liability-level offense for a guy who provides a skill that Indiana sorely lacks at the defensive end. Balancing his offensive issues against how badly the Pacers need his defense this season will essentially determine just how much Mahinmi can contribute to Indiana’s new style of play.

All of his great production from the last few seasons has mostly come against other teams’ second units, since Mahinmi has rarely started games during his time with Indiana. He’ll be tested in moving to the starting unit, and if he can maintain that level of defense, he’ll force Vogel to think long and hard about his minutes.

Still, with the style Indiana wants to play this season, someone with the issues Mahinmi has on offense could prove to be a deal breaker, given that their goal this season will be to score a bunch of points and develop a strong, fluid offensive continuity.

With one year left on his contract, it’ll be a big year for Mahinmi. His predecessor as a starter was jettisoned this offseason. In his first year as a starter, Mahinmi could soon suffer the same fate.

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