- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Under former general manager Ernie Grunfeld, there was no better representation of fans’ frustration with the Wizards than the four-year, $64 million contract given to Ian Mahinmi in the summer of 2016. Washington missed out on free agent star Kevin Durant, so they signed … a backup center instead. For $16 million a year.

Fans were baffled by the move at the time, and Mahinimi, over the years, has heard about it.

After leaving the floor with 21 points, six rebounds and three blocks in Monday’s 106-100 win over the Detroit Pistons, Mahinmi heard something else: A standing ovation.

Over the last 19 games, Mahinmi has been thrust into the starting lineup because of injuries to Washington’s bigs — and the 33-year-old has responded with some of his best basketball in years.

“He’s doing a lot of good things on both ends, and this is what we like when he when he’s a presence defensively,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Teams don’t score as many points when he’s on the floor and that’s why he’s playing extra minutes.”

At 22.5 minutes per game, Mahinmi is playing the most he has since his last season with the Indiana Pacers in 2015-16. The 6-foot-11 center provides an interior presence, and at the rim, opponents are only shooting 49.6% against him — 13th-best among centers who have played at least 10 games, according to NBA.com. This season, Mahinmi is averaging a career-high 1.5 blocks per game.

Offensively, Mahinmi is also contributing. Monday was just the second time he’s broken 20 points in his 12-year career. The first came a few weeks earlier when he notched 25 in a Dec. 30 upset of the Miami Heat.

In both instances, the Frenchman shot 90% from the floor. Most of his buckets were right at the rim — though he has also shown the range to drain outside shots. On Monday, he made a 3-pointer, just the eighth of his career.

Pairing a bright red, feathery jacket with a black turtleneck after the win, Mahinmi said it was “good feeling” to score, but downplayed his performance.

“You know me, I’m not a really big stat guy,” he said. “Honestly, I like to impact the game especially on the defensive end. … I don’t pay too much attention to it, but I appreciate it.

“If you see the way I scored, it’s really a credit to my teammates. They find me at the right the time, the right place to dunk the ball, to shoot a couple of threes.”

Mahinmi’s humility hardly captures what it has taken for the veteran to get back to this level. Even this season, Mahinmi missed the first 19 games with an Achilles strain. In the past, he battled knee and calf issues. Last year, he was mostly out of the rotation — appearing in only 34 games.

Fouling out of Monday’s game was frustrating, Mahinmi said, at least at first. But as he walked toward the sideline, the crowd got out of their seats and cheered.

Mahinmi took a moment to soak it in.

“I heard it,” Mahinmi said. “It felt really good, especially after the last three games. We hadn’t got the result that we wanted, we played hard, but not hard enough to win games. To come back home and win like that, it’s really good. The crowd … It’s a great day.”

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