NEW ORLEANS — The starting small forward job was Al-Farouq Aminu’s for the taking.
Coach Monty Williams wanted him to win it, citing his top-flight athletic ability, even by NBA standards. However, for most of preseason, Aminu seemed lost, unable to make the transition from his more natural power forward.
After watching Lance Thomas play as the starter, Aminu received another chance in the final preseason game against the Miami Heat and performed admirably. It earned him a tentative starting nod for the season opener.
After an awe-inspiring, omnipresent showing in Wednesday’s opener against the San Antonio Spurs, Aminu appears to be confident and ready for the position as the Hornets get set to play back-to-back games against the Utah Jazz tonight and the Chicago Bulls on Saturday.
Against San Antonio, Aminu scored 17 points, grabbed seven rebounds and also had three assists, three blocked shots and two steals in an all-around game that shed much light on why Williams wouldn’t let him become an afterthought.
“If he can play like that consistently,” Williams said Thursday, “we will be really pleased.”
Most impressive, in particular, were several dunks off lobs.
“I was just trying to attack the basket and run the floor,” Aminu said. “Those were the two main things I was trying to do, and (point guard Greivis Vasquez) did a great job of facilitating the team and making sure he found me when I was open.”
Aminu might also add excite Hornets fans and his teammates. He made many plays that affected the momentum in the game, as well as the score.
The Spurs had begun to pull away by the 7 1/2-minute mark of the first quarter, taking a 15-8 lead, when Aminu dunked backdoor after a pass from Vasquez. Timeout, San Antonio.
He came right back on the Hornets’ next possession, a fast break, dunking a lob from Vasquez. That excited the crowd and cut the lead to 15-12, sending the Hornets on their way, as they outscored the Spurs 13-6 in battling to a 21-21 tie. New Orleans ended the quarter with a 31-28 lead.
Then, at 5:25 of the second quarter, Vasquez threw a lob that seemed destined for out of bounds. Aminu went up, caught it, and slammed it through as the crowd, as well as the Hornets’ bench, erupted. The play gave the Hornets a 44-35 lead, their largest of the game. He also came baseline for another lob-dunk from Vasquez with 3:26 left in the first half.
“I was just trying to use my athleticism, trying to get to the bucket, in order to put pressure on the defense from the 3 position,” he said.
Said Williams: “It really gets us going. It gets me going as a coach. There’s not many people in the league who can do that. Our fans get into that, especially when we get a stop and it turns into an offensive play like that.”
That took place at the beginning of the third quarter, with the veteran Spurs coming out more aggressively. At the 10:16 mark, Aminu stole the ball from Tim Duncan and dunked, pushing the Hornets’ lead to 52-46. Then, as time ran out in the quarter, he blocked a Spurs guard/forward Danny Green’s layup attempt against the glass, preventing San Antonio from taking the lead, as the quarter ended 71-71.
In the fourth quarter, Aminu: had a steal and went coast to coast and coast for a slam that gave New Orleans a 75-73 lead; averted a Spurs fast break by blocking a shot, then drove for a layup to tie the score at 80; scored a fast-break layup that tied the score at 87; then blocked a driving shot by Spurs point guard Tony Parker and dunked on the break, giving New Orleans an 89-87 lead.
“When he defends like that and gets out on the break, I don’t know of anybody in that league that’s better, outside of LeBron (James), maybe (Nicolas) Batum up in Portland,” Williams said.
He said that kind of defense, particularly in transition, will be needed from Aminu against the Jazz, “who try to run the ball down your throat.”
Aminu said his turnaround came during the time he was replaced in the lineup in preseason. It wasn’t so much a wake-up call, he said, as it was a time to step back, learn and figure out how to apply it.
“I didn’t try to redefine myself,” he said. “Coach just broke it down to me exactly what he wants me to do. And after he told me that, and we had a couple of practices with it, things started working out for me because I’m athletic.
“I feel like it was more of knowing my role and being able to do what I’m supposed to do on the court.”
Aminu started attacking the rim with reckless abandon in practice scrimmages. Williams’ aim was to get him to transfer that to the games.
Against San Antonio, which tied for the best record in the NBA last season, Aminu showed he can do that. Playing that way consistently would be a huge plus for the young Hornets and Aminu, who is playing one of the most talent-laden positions in the league.
Aminu didn’t want to get too ahead of himself.
“I feel like I can always play hard, and that’s what I did (Wednesday night),” he said. “And as long as I do that, I think it will yield good things.”
Shooting guard Eric Gordon appeared before the media after Thursday’s practice and reiterated that the likes the Hornets’ organization and playing for the team.
Gordon did not speak to the media after Wednesday’s shoot-around practice, when the announcement was made that he would be sidelined indefinitely with a sore right knee.
He said it has been frustrating dealing with the ailing knee, on which he had arthroscopic surgery in February, and that he had been rehabbing to get back on the court while also making sure he was making the right decision for his career.
He said he has had a number of MRIs and is awaiting information from doctors.
“I will hear what the doctors are thinking this weekend,” he said.