PORTLAND, Ore. — When Al-Farouq Aminu arrived in Portland prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, he was viewed as a strong rebounder, a versatile defender and a raw offensive player.
Before he came to Portland, the former No. 8 overall draft pick hadn’t averaged more than 7.3 points per game through the first five seasons of his career. He was a subpar outside shooter, making only 28.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. In his third season, with New Orleans, he made only four 3-point shots all season.
In his first season with the Blazers, though, Aminu averaged a career-best 10.2 points per game and shot 36.1 percent on more than four 3-point attempts per game. His defense and rebounding were clear strengths, as advertised, but his emergence as a key contributor on offense was a pleasant surprise.
"I always thought that he was a solid piece to every team that he had been on. But he never had the opportunity to be the offensive player that he is for us," Lillard told the Oregonian’s Mike Richman in November 2015.
Once the 2016-17 season started, though, it was a different story. Aminu’s offense regressed considerably.
A start to forget
Through the first seven games of the season, the 26-year-old forward was averaging 7.0 points and shooting 25 percent from the 3-point line. In the eighth game, he suffered a calf injury which caused him to miss the next 13 games and 18 of the next 22. When he returned, things didn’t get much better. He shot 27.5 percent from the 3-point line and averaged 8.3 points over the next 14 games.
The following chart shows Aminu's 2016-17 regular-season statistics and how they've changed from last season.
Over the past seven weeks though, Aminu has seemingly found what was missing on offense. The improvement seemed to begin on January 20, when Aminu was moved from the starting lineup to the bench. He hasn't regained his starting position since that day, but his play has certainly improved, especially since February.
The following chart shows Aminu's statistics since February 1 and how they differ from his statistics over the full season.
There's no way to know if Aminu's improved play is a direct result of being moved to the bench. What is clear is it wasn't a demotion; Aminu's minutes have increased since the move and he is still a regular member of Portland's closing lineup.
Whatever the motivation for the change, it's helping the Blazers to have Aminu firing so smoothly on offense without sacrificing his defensive contribution.
"He's been great," Blazers forward Mo Harkless told The Oregonian's Joe Freeman. "He's shooting the ball really well. He's getting to the basket, getting to the free-throw line. He's been great."
Harkless is right. Aminu hasn't only been shooting the ball well recently, he's also improved his dribble-drive game over the past 20 days.
Aminu still turns the ball over far too often when he drives (20.7 percent of the time since Feb. 15), but at least he's making something happen when he's able to hold onto the ball.
I try to be a versatile player for this team. If I'm not going to get a lot of buckets, then I'm going to try to get some stops. If I can't get some stops, I'm going to try to get some assists. If I can't get assists, I'm going to try to get rebounds. I'm going to do something to (make) a positive impact on the team. — Al-Farouq Aminu
For his part, Aminu says nothing is different, he’s just making shots now. He told the Oregonian he just plays and tries to help his team win.
"I try to be a versatile player for this team,” he told Freeman. “If I'm not going to get a lot of buckets, then I'm going to try to get some stops. If I can't get some stops, I'm going to try to get some assists. If I can't get assists, I'm going to try to get rebounds. I'm going to do something to (make) a positive impact on the team."
Should Aminu move back into the starting lineup?
An interesting subplot to this is how well the team plays when Aminu is on the court with both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The presence of Aminu lessens the concern about whether a team can contend with two minus backcourt defenders (Lillard's defensive rating is 110.2; McCollum's is 109.4).
Aminu has the best net rating on the team when sharing the court with the Lillard-McCollum backcourt at +5.6 points per 100 possessions.
The reason for the positive difference is Aminu's defense. When Lillard and McCollum share the court without Aminu, Portland's defensive rating is 113.3. Add Aminu, and that stat drops by almost nine points, to 104.7 points per 100 possessions.
Over past 15 games, however, Lillard and McCollum have played more minutes together with Aminu on the bench than with him on the court.
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If the three players perform that well together, it presents the question whether Aminu should move back into the starting lineup. Aminu’s improvement on offense may be a result of his move to the bench 18 games ago, but it could also just be a coincidence. It could also just be that Aminu is playing with confidence because he's finally healthy.
The Blazers should take the risk and believe that Aminu won't regress if he's inserted back into the starting lineup. It's time for him to be part of the starting five with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic.