Al-Farouq Aminu isn’t a lot of things. He’s not a pick-and-roll dynamo. He’s not a 3-point marksman. He’s not going to break you down with a bevy of crossovers and in-and-out dribbles. Because he’s not any of those things he is often overlooked, scorned more for what he isn’t instead of respected and applauded for what he is.
What is he? He’s a premier defender on the perimeter, a top-flight weak side helper and shot-blocker, a long-armed nightmare in the passing lanes, and a tougher-than-he-looks body down in the post. While boxscore stats like rebounds, steals and blocks will regularly pile up for Aminu, a badly missed three in the second quarter will draw the never ending ire of fans and media alike. Meanwhile, what will go unnoticed is that he’s allowed Damian Lillard to slide off the opposing teams toughest perimeter threat or that he’s taken a low-post brawler on a hot streak and more than held his own.
The unsung hero, the man in the trenches, it’s not a new story. Every single successful team in sports history has at least one of these types of players. What’s seemingly strange in Aminu’s case is that so many want him to “stay in his lane.” Just play defense, don’t put the ball on the floor, don’t try to push the fast break, and don’t shoot the three unless you absolutely have to.
First of all, Aminu is doing these things because the coaches are asking him to and putting him in that position. Secondly, the reason he’s in that position is because Portland doesn’t have enough players currently contributing in those areas. You can’t fault Aminu for taking wide open threes when teams are forcing Lillard and CJ McCollum to play the pass into the weakside corner that Aminu has taken refuge in.
Is Aminu having a tough year shooting? Absolutely. By nearly every mark he’s at a career low, but he’s also been in and out of the lineup with injuries since he first arrived in Portland. He’s actually shooting less this season over last year in approximately the same amount of time on the floor. It would seem that he’s aware of those numbers and perhaps cutting back due to his shooting struggles.
What Aminu can’t do isn’t the point here though. So let’s take a look at a couple facets of Amiun’s defensive game. First a play that won’t make it into the highlights or into the boxscore:
In the first clip, Aminu is picking up Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green. Aminu sees that Shaun Livingston is turning the corner on CJ McCollum, so Aminu drops in, walls off and forces Livingston to kick out. Aminu anticipates and moves with the pass out to Green who’s waiting behind the 3-point line. He arrives at nearly the same time as the ball and gets a hand up to contest the spot-up shot that ultimately falls short.
It’s nothing pretty, but it’s something Aminu does ALL THE TIME.
Consider that 25 percent of Aminu’s defensive possessions are covering spot-up opportunities. That’s the bulk of Aminu’s defensive priorities, as far as “play types” are concerned, meaning that he spends most of his time recovering to shooters who are looking to pull a jumper out off of a collapsed defense. Typically when you see someone put in the same position over and over, their defensive effectiveness will drop. However, Aminu ranks 13th of all forwards in the NBA on field goal percentage allowed.
Even the best of defensive players have chinks in their armor. Aminu, because of his size, length, and athleticism is able to cover those up, where others don’t have the tools and shine on both the perimeter and the interior. Take a look at that list above, there are certainly some solid defenders on there. Notably, LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant. Aminu isn’t that far off the pace here.
Now, let’s take a look at Aminu on the interior. Here he’s picked up Zach Randolph on the duck-in, set up by the side pick-and-roll. Randolph hasn’t succeeded this long in the NBA by being the superior athlete. Everything he does is predicated on setting defenders up. He uses angles, a wide base, big frame, and strength to set up deep post position and then his elite footwork and post game do the rest.
Here Aminu sets his feet above the elbow and squares up, not opening his hips and allowing Randolph to roll down the middle of the lane. Randolph rolls on the pick, and meets Aminu, bumping and lifting Aminu a bit so he can dig into the paint a few steps further. But, Aminu holds his ground and forces Randolph to settle for the ground he’s already taken and nothing more. Randolph catches above the dotted circle and wheels to his patented baby hook with his dominant left hand. Aminu stays down, forces Randolph off his preferred line and when he’s certain this isn’t one of Randolph’s 13 pump fakes, Aminu stretches out and jumps—swatting the Randolph offering.
Zach Randolph is a difficult matchup in the paint for nearly anyone in the league. Yet, Aminu handles him perfectly here. By all accounts, Aminu is one of the best post defenders in the league when you look at the numbers. It just so happens that it’s backed up by video evidence.
When you scan this list and see that again Aminu ranks in the top portion of the league, you’ll notice a few things. First of all, Maurice Harkless (!) is 2nd, which is an added bonus. Secondly, Robin Lopez is still doing Robin Lopez things. Finally, no one on this list, save Draymond Green, is on both the spot-up leaderboard and the post-up leaderboard. While one list (spot-up) is purely forwards, this is indicative of the entire league. So it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison, but that also shows how diverse Aminu’s defensive talents are.
How does Aminu stack up across the board defensively? Well, let’s take a look.
According to Synergy data, Aminu’s overall defensive PPP (points per possession) ranks in the 87th percentile. That’s better than Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Anthony Davis.
The only area where Aminu struggles is as the primary defender on the smaller player in the pick-and-roll. Last season Aminu ranked in the 42nd percentile as the primary defender on the guard/wing in the pick-and-roll, so it’s probably a safe assumption that as the season progresses Aminu’s numbers there will also come down. This is the weak point, if you’re looking for one, in Aminu’s defensive arsenal. Even at his weakest, his career numbers have him as league average, which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it.
Aminu may not be the best in the pick-and-roll as the primary defender but he’s more than serviceable in that facet. However, if you want to see him at his best, just take a look at these two plays against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
First, Aminu has dropped into the paint to allow Harkless to help on a driving LeBron James. James sees the help commit and throws the skip pass into the corner to a waiting Kevin Love. Aminu sees it as well, recovers to the corner in time to contest the three.
In the next clip Lillard has overextended, gambling for a steal opportunity, leaving Kyrie Irving alone in the ball-side corner. Aminu rotates over and meets Irving as he drives the baseline. Irving attempts to float and wait out Aminu, but it’s no use. Aminu extends his arms and swats away his shot, taking what should’ve been a sure two points away.
This is Aminu at his best, offering help wherever he can yet still managing to cover his man too. That’s invaluable. Not only can the Blazers rely on him to do his job, they rely on him frequently to help when others fail to do theirs. Yet, while some are more than willing to criticize his offensive shortcomings, they’ll simply wave their hand and accept that his defense is acceptable.
Let’s try this, if Damian Lillard is Chance the Rapper, and CJ McCollum is The Weeknd, Aminu is the Blazer’s Lil’ Jon. Lillard and McCollum will constantly carry the headline billing, but Aminu will always be credited with what feels like a million tracks where he’s “featured.” Always the supporting role, he’s there to offer a “WHAAAT!,” a “Yeeea-yah!,” or an “OKAAAAAY!” whenever the Blazers need it. Will his appearances from time to time make you roll your eyes? Sure. At the same time though, appreciate what he does bring to the table, however limited it may be. Basically, turn down for Aminu and appreciate what he does bring every single night.
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