In a recent podcast with Zach Lowe, Olshey was asked to defend the signing of Al-farouq Aminu. His explanation was fairly extensive but one point was particularly interesting. Olshey claimed that Stotts was largely responsible for expanding Nicolas Batum's game by empowering him to do more on the basketball court. He thought a similar thing would happen with Aminu.
Al-farouq is already a plus defender, elite rebounder for the small forward position, and a solid finisher at the rim. If he could become more of a facilitator or playmaker, that would take his game to the next level. The Trail Blazers need at least a few of their young players to pop. What are Aminu's prospects at expanding his game?
First off, did the supposed expansion of Nicolas Batum's game truly take place under Stotts? Unfortunately, we don't have Synergy or SportsVU data going back that far but the numbers we do have seem to support Olshey's claim. When Stotts took over, Batum's points per game and usage rate didn't change much but his assists spiked. Batum more than tripled his assists per game going from 1.4 in 2012 to 4.9 in 2013. His assist percentage, a measure of the percentage of the Blazer's field goals that he assisted while on the floor, jumped from 7.9 percent to 20.3 percent, according to basketball-reference.com. For perspective, that was like changing from Roy Hibbert to Devin Harris in a single season.
The fact that his usage rate didn't change all that much tells us that Batum didn't increase how often he looked for his own shot. Before Stotts, Batum was typically on the receiving end of plays, finishing off of cuts or on catch and shoot opportunities at the three point line. After Stotts, Batum continued to do all of these things but was also running pick and rolls and initiating the offense, setting up his teammates. It's no wonder his turnover percentage also spiked, increasing from 11.2 to 17 percent. All of the numbers point to a player expanding his game, pushing it towards the edge of his comfort zone.
This description matches my memory. Batum was the prototypical 3 and D guy for the beginning of his career. He was an above average shooter, could finish off of cuts and in transition, and spent most of his time playing great defense and spacing around Brandon Roy isolations. His game didn't change much during the lockout, Ray Felton cupcake year - the only year after Roy but before Stotts. Although, to be completely honest, I've done my best to block that whole season from my memory banks. When Stotts arrived the offense got a breath of fresh air and no one benefited more than Batum.
However, I do remember seeing flashes of this potential before Stotts arrived. A beautiful dime here or there. An impressive read out of a rare pick and roll. During the lockout in 2011, Batum signed with SLUC Nancy, a professional club in France, and his passing skills really flourished.
That's one game but you'll notice they routinely put him in pick and rolls at the top of the key and he made a number of beautiful pocket passes or alley oops to set up his teammates. He hadn't showed it at the NBA level but there were signs that those passing skills were there.
I'm not sure the signs are as strong for Aminu. His statistics are somewhat similar to pre-Stotts Batum (he had an assist percentage of 6.1 last year with a career average of 7.3) but I have struggled to find those flashes. Aminu only had 59 assists last year total. I watched as many as I could and found that most of them came in the flow of the offense, simply swinging the ball around the perimeter, or off of offensive rebounds. There were only a handful of pick and pop plays or drive and kicks. I couldn't find a single pocket pass or alley oop which makes sense considering he was the ball handler in the pick and roll on only 14 possessions according to stats.NBA.com.
However, that's the NBA. Perhaps Aminu showed flashes of these skills in international competition? He just won Afrobasket with Nigeria where he averaged 2.3 assists per game in a little over 24 minutes a night. That's certainly a slight improvement but none of the clips I found tell me he was playing a very different role on the Nigerian team. He certainly wasn't running high pick and rolls consistently like Batum was in France.
Some of his dump passes and kick outs do show potential. Aminu often drives baseline and finds a teammate in the corner or under the basket - like in the clip below.
This pass is fairly easy because everything happens right in front of Aminu. He catches the ball and both the help defender and his teammate are directly in front of him. He watches Harden leave Stoudemire and makes the correct play.
This pass, along with others like it, shows that Aminu has some skills to build on. However, the lack of more advanced plays tell us he's nowhere near where Batum was when Stotts started coaching him. Stotts could certainly help expand Aminu's passing game, but it promises to be much more difficult. As a result, it would be foolish to expect Aminu to develop into a playmaker like Batum and Olshey's comparison might be a bit too optimistic. He can certainly improve but his potential seems considerably lower in this particular area of the game.
If that's true, then that puts added pressure on Aminu to become a passable shooter. If the Blazers truly plan on starting him long term, then he'll need to find some way to contribute more consistently to the half court offense. If that's not through his passing then he better improve his range.
We'll see if Aminu is up to the task next season.