Hornets’ Al-Farouq Aminu keeps plugging away

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Wayne Ellington (21) tries to pass around New Orleans Hornets forward Al-Farouq Aminu in the first half in New Orleans on Sunday, March 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Wayne Ellington (21) tries to pass around New Orleans Hornets forward Al-Farouq Aminu in the first half in New Orleans on Sunday, March 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

NEW ORLEANS — When the season began, Hornets forward Al-Farouq Aminu was a work in progress, and it was obvious there was much work to be done.

He was a power forward at Wake Forest, but the Hornets began transforming the third-year pro into a small forward — a position that requires more skills. What gave Aminu a chance is his excellent athleticism.

With the Hornets set to visit Utah on Friday night in the second of their final string of five road games, it’s clear Aminu has come a long way. Aminu, who averages 7.1 points but is second on the Hornets’ in rebounding at 7.6, is a free agent after the season and could attract attention from other teams.

Coach Monty Williams, who was hard on Aminu initially, said he has seen progress — particularly compared to the 2011-12 season, when he was obtained from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Chris Paul trade.

“When he first got here, he may have been 240, 245 (pounds) in the lockout year,” Williams said of Aminu, who’s now listed at 6-foot-9 and 215 pounds. “He’s trimmed his body down. He’s the best-shape athlete we have. He plays a ton of minutes. He never complains about injuries. He’s probably our best team defender. I don’t know of any (small) forwards in the league who rebound at his rate. And he wasn’t doing all that stuff when he first came.”

Williams said after Tuesday’s practice — before the team embarked on its road trip — that he’d still like Aminu to improve his jump shot. As if on cue, Aminu had his best shooting performance of the season in Wednesday’s loss at Golden State.

Going against athletic forward Harrison Barnes, Aminu was 7-of-8 from the field — most of it on jump shots — for 14 points. As usual, he also filled in much of the stat sheet, posting five rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block.

Williams said during training camp that he wanted consistent rebounding, tough defense and at least two fast-break baskets per game from Aminu. Near the start of the new year, Aminu began working with lead assistant Randy Ayers on his jump shot. At times during those workouts, he looked like someone who had never touched a basketball.

Early on, Aminu would make sure he was doing the most basic things — such as spreading his fingers to grip the ball before shooting. In games, he’d sometimes launch shots with an exaggerated arc that almost looked comical.

But he pressed on in drills, taking shots from 5 feet, then 8, 10, 12, 15. Twenty-footers. Three-pointers.

And it still seemed like he had a long way to go.

“It’s something I have to continue to work hard on,” he said. “It’s about trying to better myself and be more of a complete player and help my team win.”

If the Hornets win Friday, they’ll end the season series 2-2 against the Jazz. Aminu could play a big part in making that happen.

Utah lost Wednesday at home to Denver in large part because of the Nuggets’ ability to attack the lane. The Hornets’ guards likely will have to set the tone with drives to the basket, but Aminu does that, too. He’ll be matched against Utah’s Gordon Hayward and Marvin Williams.

Before the loss to Denver, the Jazz had won five in a row in its push to make the playoffs, but four of the wins came against teams with losing records.

The Hornets’ loss at Golden State, which swept the season series, was their eighth in a row on the road. New Orleans hasn’t won a road game since Feb. 11 at Detroit.