The Clippers need better performance from the small forward position. Ryan Gomes woefully underwhelmed in his first year with the Clippers. Rumors have spread about the possibility of the Clippers trading Chris Kaman for Andre Iguodala, in attempt to balance the starting five. But barring that trade, the Clippers will need to find a solution at small forward. They need a wing that’ll provide defense, and at the very least, average offense to help shoulder the load that Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and, to a lesser extent, Mo Williams and Chris Kaman are bearing. Wouldn’t an athletic, competent small forward blend in perfectly with the Clipper starting line-up of Mo Williams, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman/DeAndre Jordan?
Al-Farouq Aminu might be that player. Should be that player.
However, with his lackluster last few months of the season, it’s easy to forget what the Clippers initially drafted. He was a project in the truest sense of the word. Long, athletic, young and without the requisite skills for his new, NBA position, Aminu was going to have some floundering moments. No one even thought he had a decent outside shot.
And then the first six weeks of the season happened, Aminu had a stellar three point shooting percentage and suddenly we were lured into thinking that his flaws were minor and he would develop far quicker than almost any other rookie (barring, of course, Blake Griffin). Instead of wondering how that 27.3 percent from three during his last season at Wake Forest would translate, people saw the progression of 17.9 percent on 39 shots his first NCAA season to that same 27.3 percent on 66 shots in his sophomore season and began to wonder if he was just naturally progressing into a legitimate perimeter threat.
Despite his big hands and long arms, he did have pretty good form on his shots (stable base, good, high finish and good rotation). While no one thought his 50+ percent shooting would continue, a three-point percentage in the high 30s or even the low 40s didn’t seem too far out of the question. He was, after all, getting great looks with Blake causing a ruckus down low and Eric Gordon instilling fear from the perimeter. Maybe Aminu couldn’t be a first option, because his shots would be largely dependent on Blake and EJ, but he looked like a worthy fourth option with potential for more.
Only the shift in preoccupation in his development changed: would he just settle for the three point shot, or would he develop his interior game?
Not only was there little incentive to drive the lane with his shot falling, but when Aminu did decide to take it to the rim, he often drew charges/turned the ball over.
Then there was also the implicit negative to Aminu sitting out on the perimeter: he wasn’t using his size and length to grab offensive rebounds like he had shown he was capable at Wake Forest. After averaging almost 11 rebounds a game, his averages fell to less than 4 rebounds per game and bottomed out at 3.3 per game. There were going to be some declines, as he moved positions and played fewer minutes, but the NBA also has a much faster pace of play (largely due to the change from 35 second shot clock to 24) and thus affords more opportunities for rebounders, his totals should not have fallen so far.
Even still, Aminu was clearly out playing Gomes, but that didn’t stop VDN from returning Gomes to the starting lineup. After the December 12th loss to the Grizzlies, Aminu never started over Ryan Gomes.
From just a strategic standpoint, I thought keeping Aminu with the starting squad, even if VDN wanted to keep Gomes with starters minutes, would be better for the Clippers. When Aminu came in with the bench, he was often paired with another turnover prone young rookie, Eric Bledsoe, and combined they often soured the momentum of the starters. It was no secret, the bench was a weak spot for the Clippers. But had Gomes, the more intelligent, if slumping, small forward switched roles and provided leadership and wisdom for the bench unit, the rapid turnarounds may not have been so rapid. Also, it would have given Aminu the open shots and the ability to work his way to the basket to bring in the offensive rebounds, and good steals the first unit needed, while reducing the need for Aminu to drive to the basket (and thus turn the ball over).
Looking at the success of the five man units at Basketballvalue.com, using Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Griffin as the control variables, with Aminu in the lineup, the Clippers played much better. Both units beat their opponents on average, but the Aminu lineup played almost a point per minute better than their opponent (+ 41.94 in 32.87 minutes) while the Gomes lineup had a +9.18 rating. The Gomes lineup was a much more normal sample size, but even including the standard deviations of the lineup, the low end for the Aminu lineup would be 20.85. Still a huge discrepancy that favors Aminu.
Aminu wasn’t going to shoot over 50 percent from beyond the parabola the whole year, but I do believe that keeping him in the starting lineup would have prevented the complete bottoming out of his three point shooting. In the last four months, Aminu couldn’t break 20 percent from behind the arc in any month. But I do think that his regression with his three point percentage wasn’t the disconcerting part of Aminu’s season, but how Vinny Del Negro handled him.
Touted for his ability to develop talent and connect with the younger players, the 2010-2011 season was a mixed bag for VDN. Bledsoe and Aminu regressed in some areas and improved in others, but I thought he mishandled both of their situations to some extent. Bledsoe lost his starting job the night after guiding the Clippers to their first road win of the season. And Aminu didn’t get another opportunity to start over Gomes after those early November and December games, despite outplaying Gomes the whole year. What made matters worse, was when Gomes went down at the end of the season with a knee injury and, instead of inserting Aminu into the starting lineup, VDN played Randy Foye at the starting small forward position.
I interviewed Aminu before Oklahoma City Thunder game on April 2 (the huge comeback game), right after I listened to the VDN presser and found out that Randy Foye was going to start at small forward, not Al-Farouq Aminu.
Aminu was slumped in his seat next to his locker, slowly snacking away at an apple. He answered my questions, just like he always, but he was clearly unhappy. When I asked him about Ryan Gomes being injured he only responded with an apathetic reply.
“Gomes ain’t playing?” He went back to snacking at his apple.
I asked him if he thought he would get more minutes with Gomes out.
“Nah, not really. Never know what the rotations are, sometimes what’s his name plays… Randy Foye. So, being a rookie I just, whenever I’m out there, I’m out there.”
Aminu clearly stressed the disconnect and/or disappointment between him and VDN, because VDN had just told the press that Foye would start, and his references to his teammate, Foye, were clearly dismissive.
Of course, this was right in the midst of Vinny trying to get the younger guys to be more disciplined. In theory, I really like the idea of Vinny holding the guys accountable and I thought his best moment of the whole year was when he properly managed the Baron Weight/Knee crisis at the beginning of the year. But if VDN is going to admonish Aminu (and Bledsoe) for his turnovers and fouls, he should at least take notice that Aminu was, in fact, improving.
In November, when Aminu played his most minutes (311), he also had his worst turnover rates (a turnover for every 9.72 minutes) and one of his worst foul rates (a turnover every 11.52 minutes), but by the time that Oklahoma City Thunder game had rolled around, Aminu had made marked improvement. He averaged a turnover every 27.5 minutes in February, and 17.5 minutes in March, while also averaging fewer fouls (one per 14.47 minutes in February and one per 15.31 minutes in March).
Vinny stressed giving rookies really simple tasks, so that they could build from there, but he never acknowledged that Aminu was in fact improving on his most drastic weakness.
As for his defense, Aminu no longer allowed guys like Charlie Villanueva torch him for 30 like he did in November. Aminu went out that night and played solid defense on Kevin Durant, as the Clippers held Durant to 10 for 24 shooting and 23 points, 5 points below his season average.
Had Aminu played more minutes, especially after VDN chose play Foye at small forward after Gomes’ injury, the Clippers might not be searching so diligently for an ‘answer’ at small forward. He undoubtedly needs more seasoning, but his raw ability could easily fit in with this Clippers team, and his development will foment the team’s progress on the whole.
While I really like the idea of Iguodala joining the Clippers (especially if the Clippers can leveraged the financial gain into only trading Kaman for Iggy straight up), the reality is that the Clippers don’t need a high scorer at small forward, not with Blake and EJ averaging 20+ points per game and Mo Williams in the mid teens. What they need is a player, who can be an X-factor, play defense, rebound and score in the low teens. While it’s unlikely that Aminu ever develops into a perennial All Star, championship teams need high functioning role players, which Al-Farouq Aminu could very well end up being.