2017 has been a crazy year for the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers traded the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony all changed teams. Gordon Hayward signed a massive deal with the Boston Celtics only to have his season end after six minutes on the court. Of course Lonzo Ball was picked by the Lakers.
While it might not be quite as wild, and certainly won’t draw as much reaction in NBA circles, plenty of Portland Trail Blazers fans are surprised to see Al-Farouq Aminu playing as Portland’s third-best player two weeks into the 2017-18 regular season. Aminu is not the third-most-talented player on the Blazers. That designation belongs to Jusuf Nurkic, the third piece of Portland’s “big three”. But through the first six games of the Blazers’ season, Aminu is making a more serious impact than anyone outside of starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Though Aminu’s evolution wasn’t entirely predictable, it’s certainly definable. Here are three ways the Portland forward has transformed himself from defensive-specialist afterthought to critical cog.
Throughout his Portland career, Aminu has shown a proclivity for lowering his head and driving to the rim, despite poor handles and a penchant for blowing layups in traffic. Maddeningly, he often attacked defenders despite a 1-on-2 or even 1-on-3 disadvantage. This has been the case for his entire career. He’s averaged more turnovers than assists in the NBA and owns a virtual 1:1 ratio as a Blazer.
While the tracking data isn’t yet available, it’s clear that Aminu has amended his ways this season. He still attacks the paint recklessly on a few occasions, but for the most part he’s deferred to better ball-handlers, especially on the fast break. This has led to a drastic reduction in turnovers: 1.5 per game last season versus to 0.8 so far this year with a similar ratio per minute. It’s early enough that the statistics could be noise, but if the new leaf is flipped, it’s sustainable.
Defense and Rebounding
Boy oh boy, has Aminu been solid here. He’s has always been regarded as a good rebounder for his size, but 8.7 boards per night—nearly two offensive—is impressive no matter how tall you are. The Blazers have started the season as the #1 offensive rebounding and #2 defensive rebounding team in the NBA. Along with Nurkic, Ed Davis, and Caleb Swanigan, Chief has made sure that opponents only get one look per trip down the court.
More impressively, Aminu has managed a Defensive Rating of 96 through Portland’s first six games, tops among Blazer rotation players. Aminu has always been an above-average defender, but this season he looks like a man possessed; locking up on the perimeter and providing baseline help when necessary. He’s also shown propensity for shot-blocking: nearly 1.5 blocks per game in the early going.
Aminu’s chops are critical as the Blazers try to develop a defensive identity. Lillard and McCollum have shown defensive improvement, but the season is long and the demands on them high. Portland is going to need consistent defensive intensity from their back line all year long.
Aminu has started the season off scorching hot from the outside; shooting 52 percent from beyond the arc. This is probably the least sustainable of his improvements, but it’s making a difference.
The always-perilous eye test notes that Aminu’s shot has looked less like a trebuchet and more like a squared-up NBA jump shot this year. Both form and results may slump as the season progresses, but if the Blazers can get 36-37 percent out of him, it’ll be a significant improvement over the 33% he posted last year.
Aminu has plenty of competition for forwards minutes. Noah Vonleh will return soon. Swanigan and fellow rookie Zach Collins are knocking at the door. But as long as these three aspects of his game continue to shine, Aminu is unlikely to cede much playing time. He might fall back as the year progresses, but his early success may indicate that last season’s nagging injuries were more bothersome than publicized. If so, he can regress towards the mean and still remain valuable. If this is the Aminu that Blazer fans can expect for the rest of the season, and possibly beyond, they’ll be doing well.