In the face of tempered expectations, the Portland Trail Blazers’ rebuild has thus far been a rousing success. To be in the playoff race more than halfway through the season is more than most had anticipated from a team that lost four starters last summer; especially since the pieces acquired in their stead were at least ostensibly incomplete. No one player to sign on in July had a notably rounded game—perhaps most glaringly Al-Farouq Aminu.
The forward was known for being an exceptional defender, but he lacked range and a reliable jump shot, entering the season with a career average of 28.6 percent from deep. In Terry Stotts’ 3-point oriented offense, that posed a problem. And yet, today he thrives. Aminu is shooting a rather respectable 35.3 percent from beyond the arc, which constitutes a career-best by a wide margin. So how is it that the Aminu we see today seems to have transformed into a capable shooter in such short order?
"Hard work. Just a lot of getting in the gym and working." said Aminu. "Also this summer I worked with Mahmoud Rauf. He’s a really good shooter, so he taught me a couple of different things. Really good to work out with."
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, of ‘90s Nuggets fame, was well known for being able to create separation and get his shot just about anywhere. He was also arguably the greatest free throw shooter of all-time, shooting 90.5 percent from the line, but falling 39 attempts short of qualifying for the leaderboard (1200), where Steve Nash reigns supreme at 90.4 percent.
Tips from Abdul-Rauf were invaluable to Aminu, as have been a change of venue and, ultimately, a change of philosophy. As his skills developed, it was apparent that he would get a chance to use them, creating a cycle conducive to rapid progress.
"Most places I’ve been, they haven’t been telling me really to shoot the ball." Aminu explains. "In Dallas, they told me, you know, ‘Shoot if you’re open,’ but it wasn’t necessarily a hard point. Just ‘Hey, man, shoot the ball,’ you know what I mean? [Stotts] actually wants me to shoot."
And shoot Aminu does. He is on pace to attempt more than 750 shots this season, with his previous high being 494 during his third season in New Orleans. In fact, he has already attempted more 3-point field goals (190) than he did in all three seasons combined under Monty Williams (114). Stotts is continuing what Rick Carlisle started in Dallas with a new spin.
"I think the style that we play—first of all—we’ve really encouraged him to take open threes." Stotts said. "He’s worked very hard on it. He came in in September and proved that he was a very good 3-point shooter, but I think our style of play with our movement, our passing, and encouraging him to take those shots when they’re there has been part of it."
Aminu has, in turn, been part of the team’s overall success. The goal of this free agency-necessitated restructuring was to find the overlooked players with gaps in their repertoire and fill them accordingly. Aminu is the shining example of this process in action, accelerated by his position of prominence and increased usage in the starting lineup. He is well on his way to being one of the Blazers’ most complete products.
Beyond his emergence as a viable shooter, Aminu remains the best overall defender on the roster, and he is only getting better. While he is one of the most experienced players in Portland, it is easy to forget that he is actually younger than point guard Damian Lillard, whose career arc the roster is built around. Aminu aspires to improve upon his defense every season. He is not content with the best on the team. He wants to be the best in the league.
"My goal every year is to be a defensive player of the year. I want to be first team, second team, third team, something like that. I want it to be known that I’m a great defender and I want the league to recognize that. I want to be able to guard—not a lot of people can do that in the league—but to be able to guard one through, like, basically almost five. There’s a couple of fives probably I can’t guard, but for the most part, one through four and maybe some fives sometimes; at least for a possession. Maybe not the whole game, but if that possession happens, I need to be able to do what I need to be able to do."
That ability was on display Wednesday night in the Blazers’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks. It was switching Aminu onto power forward Paul Millsap that allowed Portland to stem the scoring tide and creep back into the game, nearly resulting in victory. This effort did not go unnoticed by Stotts, who engineered the matchup and noted quality play on both ends of the floor.
"It was a solid performance. He did a nice job playing four, he made some very good defensive plays. I thought he had a typical game for him. He made some shots. I was glad to see him be aggressive and take the mid-range shots, taking what the defense gave him."
Teammate Meyers Leonard also voiced his contentment with Aminu’s consistent contributions.
"He brings energy, gets into the ball, can guard one through four, he’s a good rebounder, and I just think he has a pretty physical presence." Leonard said.
With the desire to continue improving and the discipline to put in the work, Aminu figures to be a solid pillar of the new Blazers, and on a declining 4yr/$30M contract, it is likely that pillar will stand for some time. The signing that once sparked criticism from basketball pundits is beginning to look an awful lot like a steal; especially with the upcoming cap increase.
Where Aminu shores up his game from here is largely up to him. Given his recent successes, his goals seem reasonable.
"Of course, I want to be a better shooter. It would be nice to put more pressure on defenses. And then I think I can really improve on my ball handling as well and decision making, so we work on that every day as well. There’s different things I want to get better at."
He is always reaching for that next level.
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