The 2015 free agency period was only minutes old when the Portland Trail Blazers and small forward Al-Farouq Aminu came to terms on a 4-year, $30 million deal. What does Aminu bring to the table and what does his signing show about the Trail Blazers' evolution? Read on...
Aminu was drafted 8th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers and their new general manager, Neil Olshey. Coming out of college after 2 years at Wake Forest, the 6'8", 215 lb small forward packed potential. Known for his size and athleticism, Aminu was projected as a beast in transition and a capable defender. His work ethic endeared him to scouts and coaches. The huge missing piece was shooting. Aminu averaged 52% from the field his freshman year at Wake, 45% as a sophomore. But those numbers reflected his ability to get around the rim with his athleticism. From college three-point range he fired a homely 18% as a freshman which bumped to a barely-acceptable 27% in his second year. His body and outlook were made for the NBA but his offensive skill set needed work.
Aminu appeared in 81 games for the Clippers in his rookie season, averaging 18 minutes per outing. As expected, his defense rounded into form quickly. His offensive percentages weren't bad. He shot 39% from the field, 32% from the arc. 35% of his shot attempts came from distance. He wasn't setting the world on fire but any kind of upward arc would bring him into more-than-acceptable territory given his other abilities. Unfortunately his rookie season would provide the high-water marks for distance shooting and scoring production so far. Aminu would become a more effective, more well-rounded player as his career progressed but he'd not find offensive success away from the bucket.
Following Aminu's first campaign Olshey and the Clippers sent him to New Orleans as part of the deal that brought Chris Paul to L.A. He'd spend 3 years with the Hornets/Pelicans, honing his craft and developing into one of the best rebounding forwards in the NBA. In 2012-13 he grabbed 27% of the defensive rebounds available to his team when he was on the floor...this from the 3-spot. He'd also abandon the three-point arc (and really jumpers altogether), attempting 45-49% of his shots from within 3 feet of the hoop. His shooting percentages skyrocketed, reaching a high of 47.5% in 2012-13, but his point production dropped. Defense and rebounding were enough to make him a starter in New Orleans from 2012-2014 nevertheless.
Done with the Pelicans following the 2013-14 season and looking for direction, Aminu inked a modest contract with the Dallas Mavericks. This gave him a little under $1 million in the first season and a player option for the second. He quickly became a fan favorite in Dallas for his ability to come off the bench and defend multiple positions...a trait in short supply on a roster built around aging veterans. In Dallas' offense Aminu returned to the three-point arc, again attempting 35% of his tosses from that range. His ability had slipped from his rookie season. He shot only 27.5% from distance and his overall field goal percentage dropped to 41.2%. His scoring production rose, however, and his rebounding remained strong.
Aminu opted out of the second year of his deal with Dallas to sign with the Trail Blazers, helmed by his first GM, Neil Olshey. Portland is getting a small forward whose offense is bad, but not epic-level rotten anymore. Aminu's defense and rebounding are spot on and he's rounded into a nice, if limited, overall player. Depending on who else the Blazers acquire, Aminu could straddle the line between starter and reserve. If he ever develops a shot, he'll be just as deadly as his draft upside promised. If not, he'll be one of those "nice to have on your team" guys. At age 24 he hasn't hit his peak yet. He has time to develop in Portland's offense (chances are he'll need it) and he'll help right away on defense and the glass.
Interestingly enough, Aminu shares a trait with one of Portland's other wing pick-ups this summer, Gerald Henderson. Both struggle with the three-point shot unless they're in the corners, where they look respectable. If Henderson stays and the Blazers expect to get traction out of Aminu, it could signal a significant change in Portland's offense. Playing off of LaMarcus Aldridge on the left block, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum would often find themselves at a diagonal angle from the bucket at three-point arc. Portland may be planning to flatten out their wing positioning, sending shooting guard and small forward to the coffin corner, presumably to make more room for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate up top, either alone or in traditional pick and rolls. If this signing is indicative, don't be surprised if Portland's offense shades a little more towards 2008 Nate McMillan and a little farther away from 2014 Terry Stotts.
The combination of Henderson and Aminu also screams transition offense. Aminu is at his most intimidating on the run and his ability to rebound is sure to help the Blazers get out quickly.
Aminu's signing continues Portland's trend of acquiring athletes this summer. He not only fits into the mold of Henderson and Mason Plumlee, he pushes it farther. For years Portland acquired players with length, skill, and shooting at the expense of raw power. The pendulum isn't just swinging the other way, it's crashing. These guys can't shoot a lick, but they're a constant threat to streak out and cram a dunk over your head.
They're also young...another common denominator that indicates without words that, absent a return of free agents en masse, the team is shifting away from LaMarcus Aldridge's timeline towards Damian Lillard's.
Like every other move the Blazers have made this summer, signing Aminu does not provide definitive direction, does not make the team strikingly better in the short term (especially when compared with Batum), and does not in itself seem sufficient. This could be a great move for the future if Aminu develops well. It could be a good move right now if the Blazers construct the roster so that they don't need Aminu to do much more than he does already. Absent further transactions--providing a core for the lineup in the present or building more obviously for the future--it's impossible to say whether this signing was exactly the right thing or hopelessly inadequate. The best bet is that it's both, just in different ways. But it's also a move that Portland fans are going to end up loving as they watch Aminu hustle on defense, rebound, and occasionally get free on the run.
We have more on the salary cap implications of the Aminu signing and Portland's updated cap status here.
If you want to hear us discuss the Trail Blazers evolving "master plan", which now evidently includes Aminu, check out the Blazer's Edge Podcast.