The year was 2017. THEY were once again sleeping on the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Blazers ended up with 48 wins and the third seed in the brutal Western Conference, shutting down critics and keyboard warriors alike. Until…
Jrue Holiday happened.
The Blazers went on to drop the series in 0-4 fashion, but the bad news was just beginning.
The offseason was just as bleh as the first round of the playoffs.
Now we’re just weeks away with more questions than answers as it pertains to the 2018-19 edition of Rip City Season. Jared Wright and Bryant Knox of Oregon Sports News are back with their in-depth Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 Season Previews for each player.
Today, we take a look at the rock of the Trail Blazers, Al-Farouq Aminu.
If you want an example of a solid role player, you could do much worse than studying Al-Farouq Aminu last season. Playing a small-ball 4, Chief alternated between doing the dirty work on the boards and guarding a top perimeter threat, jobs that often blended together as the league’s teams started to play three wings and a big alongside a point guard. Being the 4 in a three-wing setup can be a thankless task at times (which is why you rarely see the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant play much 4 even though they have the size to do it), but Chief thrived as much as he could in 2017-18.
Aminu’s stats were either near his career-highs or at them pretty much across the board; particularly of note is his career year from three-point range. Thirty-seven percent is a huge improvement from where he was when he first came to Portland three years ago, and getting to around league-average from beyond the arc has helped him stay on the court and leverage the other parts of his game.
Aminu’s catch-and-shoot skills were a big part of the Blazers’ offense last year, especially when the guards found him chilling in the corner. Though only 28 percent of his 339 three-point attempts were from the corner, Chief shot an insane 47 percent from there.
In the case of that corner shot, less was more for Aminu. He shot a lower amount of his threes percentage-wise from that high-efficiency area than he did in his first two Blazer seasons, but as Chief gained confidence in shooting from above the break or in transition, teams couldn’t just camp him in that corner. Even though Aminu only shot about 33 percent from above the break, Portland still needs him to take that shot to help loosen up their offense.
Aminu slithering to the corner for a three was, amazingly, the highest-value play for the Portland Trail Blazers last season, a season where they employed two 20-plus-PPG scorers. Basketball is weird, man.
Chief’s shooting from almost everywhere else, unfortunately, still conjures up visions of pig slop. He did shoot 60 percent from the restricted area, but it still didn’t save his overall percentage from mockery.
That low overall field-goal percentage is partly a product of Aminu shooting nearly 60 percent of his shots from downtown, but sub-40 percent shooting is still not ideal. His percentages from everywhere between the rim and the arc are pure trash; I’m pretty sure my editor could shoot 15 percent from midrange on an NBA court. Aminu’s a catch-and-shoot guy in Portland now, so any kind of shot from the midrange is going to be a desperate heave after CJ McCollum dribbles for 20 seconds, finds nothing, gets triple-teamed, and chucks it to Chief so CJ doesn’t tank his precious percentages by shooting a prayer.
Despite that, Aminu had a solid year for the Blazers last season. He’s the PB and J of the team, always there if you need him.
What He Brings to the Table
Chief is probably the best individual defender on the team. Folks might give an edge to Mo Harkless, but I prefer consistency over the occasional explosive chase-down block. In three years of watching him play, I’ve rarely seen Aminu out of position, late on a rotation, or making a boneheaded reach-in foul. Jusuf Nurkic might be the main reason the Blazers were eighth in defensive rating last season, but Aminu deserves his fair share of the credit. He’s the one capable of defending four different positions, after all.
If it sounds like I’m describing Chief as a 3-and-D guy…well, you’d be mostly right. His role on the Blazers is to catch-and-shoot and play defense, but he adds more value than your traditional 3-and-D man. Aminu sets the occasional screen, was second on the Blazers in steals last year (behind, of all people, Shabazz Napier), and had more defensive rebounds and rebounds per game than Ed Davis (though Davis nearly doubled up Chief in offensive boards and had more total rebounds overall).
Aminu is also trying to develop a drive-and-kick element to his game, but with underwhelming results so far. I feel bad for admitting this, but whenever I saw Aminu try to attack a defender frantically closing out on him in the corner, I chuckled. He looks so clumsy trying to dribble, it’s like watching a five-year-old trying to dribble a Nerf ball on a kitchen floor.
In the bigger picture, learning new skills is a really good thing for both Aminu and the Blazers; versatility has never been valued so highly in a basketball player, and teams are starting to respect Aminu’s shot enough to close out on him hard, which opens up his drive to the basket.
There will still be plenty of giggle-worthy and groan-inducing moments when Chief does stretch himself.
What to Expect in 2018-19
There is plenty of motivation for Al-Farouq Aminu to stretch his skill set beyond trying to help his team this season: His contract expires this summer. Chief’s been on a VERY affordable four-year, $30 million contract he signed in 2015, one of Neil Olshey’s best deals. Olshey did draft Aminu when he was with the Los Angeles Clippers; bringing in “your guys” to a different team isn’t usually a good idea (see: Thibodeau, Tom), but it did work out for Olshey and Aminu.
Thing is, after seeing guys like Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard earn bigger deals one year later—and fail to outperform him—Aminu might be looking to test the waters in 2019.
It feels like Aminu has been around the NBA forever, but he just turned 28, is on Damian Lillard’s timeline age-wise, and has proven to be a very complimentary piece for the star backcourt in Rip City. As the season progresses, the contract situation of Aminu will be a very underrated storyline, I feel.
For now, we can expect the Chief to do what he does best. With one eye on the future.
Check out the other players in our Portland Trail Blazers Player Preview Series: