Al-Farouq Aminu has always been more of an athlete than a basketball player. Standing at 6’8, 220 pounds with a 7’3 wingspan, he’s always been somewhere between positions. He moves well enough to play the 3 on defense, but doesn’t have the necessary perimeter skills on offense. However, he doesn’t have the bulk to consistently bang down low with power forwards.
In fact, his game is full of eccentricities and skills that you typically don’t associate with guys like him. First and foremost, there aren’t many small forwards whose best skill is crashing the glass. Aminu’s defensive rebounding rate of 21.2 percent was tops among all nominal small-forwards last season (where he played 77 percent of his minutes). He has the ability to put the ball on the floor and run in transition — plays in transition made up 18 percent of his offensive possessions last season — but he also can’t create plays for himself in the half court. The biggest problem with his game is shooting, as he only makes 32 percent of his attempts outside of the restricted area. That didn’t stop the Pelicans from trying to use him that way (28 percent of his shots came in spot-up shooting situations), but it’s not something he does well. Basically, Aminu is a “tweener” through and through, with some skills that fit the power forward position perfectly (rebounding, size), and others (quickness, lack of bulk) that fit the small forward spot.
Unsurprisingly given these skills, Aminu performed much better with Ryan Anderson on the floor with him last season. With Anderson on the floor, the Pelicans had a net rating of +4. With him on the bench and Aminu on the floor, the Pelicans’ rating was an abysmal -5.9. Aminu’s individual statistics skyrocketed with Anderson on the floor as well, improving his total rebounding rate from 13.2 with Anderson off the floor to 17.2 with him on it. His effective field-goal percentage also rose dramatically from 47.6 percent with Anderson off the floor to 52.2 percent with him on it. We know that Aminu can defend, rebound, and provide energy, but you have to find the right fit of players to make him worthwhile enough offensively to do so. Surrounding him with spacing is unsurprisingly the key to unlocking best offensive player Aminu can be.
And fortunately for Aminu, he couldn’t have found a better fit than the Dallas Mavericks for his skills. Being placed next to Dirk Nowitzki — the premier floor spacer in the NBA last season from the front court — should be a massive bonus for his career. He’ll be allowed to simply wreck havoc on the offensive glass and make cuts to the rim (his 1.31 points off of cuts last season was in the top 15 percent of all NBA players) while Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons help to space the floor. Even Tyson Chandler’s pick-and-roll heavy game will help the Mavericks’ spacing when Aminu is on the floor, and it’s going to be a huge help to his career. Aminu is a bigger, better version of what Jae Crowder has brought to the Mavs last season, and he’ll be a welcome addition.
However, Aminu is also a poster child for something else. He is what can happen when a team doesn’t prioritize developmental fits around their positionally challenged lottery picks. While he has settled into a solid career as a role player, it wasn’t too long ago that Aminu was viewed as a potential future all-star, someone that was a large piece in the Chris Paul-Clippers trade. Undoubtedly, his skills didn’t develop as the Hornets/Pelicans or the Clippers had hoped when they traded for and drafted him, but I’m not sure they put him in the best place to succeed. During his rookie season, the Clippers only had one player who played at least 800 minutes that shot above 35 percent from three. The Hornets had that same problem during his first season with the franchise. Between the upheaval of learning a new system and the lack of spacing from either offense, it was always going to be difficult for Aminu to use his skills to succeed.
This is the kind of thing that teams need to avoid, and they’re starting to more often. As the analytics movement makes its way into front offices, shooters have become one of the hottest commodities in basketball. A good example of how shooting can help tweeners develop comes with Aaron Gordon in Orlando. Knowing that Gordon has difficulty shooting the basketball, the Magic were a difficult situation for him. They were shaping up as the worst-shooting team in the NBA going into the 2015 after selecting Gordon and Elfrid Payton in the draft and trading Arron Afflalo. However, they rectified that in free agency by signing a big shooting center in Channing Frye and another potentially useful shooter in Ben Gordon. Through these signings, Gordon should now be able to develop his shot at his own pace instead of being pressed into action with it immediately. Maybe Gordon develops into what Aminu couldn’t — and admittedly, Gordon has more half-court ball-handling skills than Aminu ever did — and maybe he doesn’t, but at least the Magic put him in a place where it could happen.
Tweeners at the forward position are often the hardest players to fit into an offense, and that’s one of the reasons they often fail. However, with the the new emphasis on how floor spacing affects offense in front offices, maybe these players will become easier to build around. It’s possible that Aminu was simply drafted three years too early, and if he had come along today teams would have been better equipped to find a way to get the best out of him.
Luckily for Aminu, he’s only going to be 24 years old when the season starts, and there is plenty of time for him to figure it out. His best basketball is undoubtedly ahead of him, and the renewed emphasis on roster fit will help him get there.