At this time last year, the Portland Trail Blazers had already packed their bags for vacation and fans were left pondering what would become of their team. First they had to deal with the impending free agency of three starters, and then the big question swirling around: Would free agent big man LaMarcus Aldridge stay or go?
There were some bright spots as well. Meyers Leonard showed flashes of brilliance in the first round of the playoffs against the Grizzlies, locking down All-Star center Marc Gasol defensively while drawing out the coverage on offense by knocking down three after three.
CJ McCollum stepped up into the spotlight as well, and he didn't disappoint. He showed an incredibly varied offensive game; midrange, off the bounce, 3-pointers, step backs. It was all on display.
Fast forward 12+ months Aldridge is gone, along with every starter but Damian Lillard. The only remains from the playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, beyond disappointment, are the performances that served as building blocks for McCollum and Leonard.
While Leonard struggled compared to his playoff performances out of the gate this season, McCollum fully lived up to the hype - continuing where he left of and carrying that through an entire 82-game season. Which is what brings us to today's topic: Al-Farouq Aminu and playoff experience.
I'm not usually one to bank on sentiment or the intangibles when gauging a player's growth. However, there are times (such as the playoffs) where players can be put under the brightest spotlight, and as the saying goes - "no pressure, no diamonds" - players can take large steps in their own individual growth. While Aminu has certainly had a couple of sub-par games this postseasom, particularly in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers, he's also had some of the best games of his career during this playoff stretch.
Prior to this season, Aminu had a single 20-point game, his career high. Since March 26, he's had five such games. For the playoffs Aminu is averaging 14.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range.
If you run those numbers through basketballreference.com, you find that since 1982 only 35 players have put together similar or better playoff numbers and the names range from Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing (awful comparison) to Shawn Marion, Al Horford, Chris Webber and Gerald Wallace (better comparisons).
Teams, scouts, fans and the like have had a pretty similar view on Aminu for quite some time - if he could ever figure out his jumpshot, he could be an incredibly valuable and versatile perimeter player. Well, it appears he may actually have figured out his jumper (note: he also may not have figured out his jumper).
One of the more remarkable things happening on the court so far is that Aminu's usage rate has sky rocketed while his shooting has improved. During the regular season Aminu shot under 42 percent from the field and 36 percent from distance - not bad, but not exactly lighting the world on fire. He's gone from a usage rate hovering around 16 percent to almost 20 percent a night, while improving in nearly every category that counts.
That's not supposed to happen. In fact, the exact opposite it supposed to occur. In statistical terms, one would expect a regression to the mean. With Aminu, like a lot of things, it's not that simple. During the playoffs he's had as many games (five) above his 3-point percentage on the season as he has below it. Along those same lines, the variance is enormous.
He has four games of at or greater than 50 percent from beyond the arc with three or more makes, while at the same time he has four games where he's missed at least five 3-point attempts. It really is feast or famine, however, his feasts are better than they've ever been.
While it's obviously way too early to talk about the returns on playoff performances this season, it feels like Aminu could be the one we look back on a year from now and point to this period as the time he figured it out. It's something the Blazers have to hope for if they are to improve going forward.
If there's anything the Western Conference semifinals series against the Warriors has shown, it's that the Blazers are still at least a perimeter player away from true contention. Lillard and McCollum have both been featured on the marquee and have had some exquisite performances, but it's become apparent they don't have the full complement of weapons the Warriors do in the closing minutes of quarters, halves and, ultimately, games.
If Aminu capitalizes on the opportunity to be the guy who knocks down shots when teams want to press Blazer guards, and if he can be the guy who makes the right read - whether to put the ball down on the floor, make one more pass, or take the shot he's given and keep the defense off balance all night long - then the Blazers could possibly have one more position locked down heading into the offseason.
Of course all of this could just be a flash in the pan and he could completely and totally fall apart. That's part of what makes this team so interesting - even down 3-1 to the reigning NBA Champions. After 90+ games, you still don't know what this team is. There's still room to grow, there's still time to succeed and time to fail.
When it's all said and done and the Trail Blazers are tipping off the 2016-17 season, is Aminu a starter? Is he the right guy for the future? Let us know what you think in the comments below!