The B-Side: Ian Mahinmi, Brandan Wright and the New Raw

Rob Mahoney@RobMahoneyNBA Lead WriterMarch 28, 2012

The B-Side is a recurring feature here at Bleacher Report that gives kudos to the unheralded: the brilliantly executed set that leads to a bland layup, the swarming coverage that causes a shot clock violation or even the phenomenal move that ends with a blown finish. Every night in the NBA is filled with plays that are noteworthy for a wide variety of reasons, and this space is set aside to enjoy the alternatives to the standard highlight—one clip at a time.

Ian Mahinmi and Brandan Wright began their Maverick careers on similar terms; one was a fringe prospect and the other a former lottery pick, but both came to Dallas as cast-offs of a sort, abandoned by the teams that had invested the most in their respective futures. Neither was guaranteed a role or a set amount of playing time in Dallas, but they were offered a chance to earn their keep within a stable organization of consummate professionals.

But their deeper similarity was one of classification. Both Mahinmi and Wright qualified as "project" big men—those with an identified rawness to their games that extended beyond the limitations and caveats present in the skill sets of all players. Most NBAers are generally allowed their flaws, but project players must wear theirs on their sleeves. They're defined by what they cannot do, and supposedly allowed roster spots merely for the sake of long-term investment.

That couldn't be further from the case with Mahinmi and Wright, who have taken turns this season filling in for Brendan Haywood and managed to hold the starting center's minutes to a mere 22.2 per night by way of energy and production. It's grown increasingly difficult for Rick Carlisle to keep either "project" off the floor, and though both players are certainly raw in some aspect of their game or another, they both exhibit a definite sophistication that betrays their project status.

Neither player is much of a back-to-the-basket threat, nor do Mahinmi and Wright really create shots in any capacity. But their touch around the rim—as well as their abilities to navigate space on the move—is unquestionable. Mahinmi and Wright are products of the roles in which they're allowed to thrive, but within those roles they've also demonstrated more grace than they were ever given credit for.

Take, for example, this nifty spin move Mahinmi executed in Tuesday night's game against the Houston Rockets:

This isn't at all unique; that particular move may be a first-time occurrence, but Mahinmi's refined use of footwork and space is fairly common, and the same is true for Wright. One may think of catch-and-finish cuts as a simple display of size and athleticism, but this pair frequently demonstrates the technique of the act—even as they otherwise lack the pick-and-roll cachet of the NBA's most dominant finishers. They're mere role players, but it's in moments like these that they showcase the legitimacy of their craft.

Wright and Mahinmi have ample room for improvement, but they've found a zone of effectiveness as both players and projects; they're still learning, but they've managed to take steps in the right direction without making any dramatic leaps. In that, they stretch the bounds of exactly what a project player is and can be. Neither is radically different than they were a season ago, and yet with a proper chance to participate in a functional offense, they've also found room to showcase their considerable skill.

Even without being proficient shooters or post players, Wright and Mahinmi have demonstrated a nuanced understanding of how successful offenses operate. They play squarely within themselves at all times, even as they rattle off moves that would have no place in a project big man's very limited wheelhouse. That doesn't make them anything more than they are, but it should give us all pause before diagnosing (and disregarding) players based on broad assumptions of their limitations. 

There's a place for everything in the NBA; some players are made circumstantially better than others, but that doesn't mean there isn't a practical use for skill sets of all types—however raw they may seem.