Aminu’s move to small forward takes Hornet out of comfort zone
NEW ORLEANS — At times, it appears the sky is the limit for the Hornets’ Al-Farouq Aminu. That is usually when he leaps.
Other times, his potential doesn’t seem to have such a high ceiling. Usually when it seems that way, it is when he is trying to display basketball skills such as dribbling and shooting.
For now, Aminu, in his third year in the NBA, seems stuck between his more natural power forward, which he played well as a standout at Norcross (Ga.) High School and at Wake Forest, and small forward, the position he’s trying to play in the NBA.
He used to overwhelm opponents with his quickness, speed and jumping ability. However, in the NBA, his size — 6 feet 9, 215 pounds — won’t allow him to have the effectiveness to which he had grown accustomed.
A change was in order, the Hornets felt, and it looks as though the transition may to take time. Everyone concerned is remaining positive.
“I think he’s coming around,” said assistant coach Brian Gates, who has the job of developing Aminu at one of the league’s most competitive positions. “He’s learning a new position. ... And he’s learning to translate his ability to the perimeter. Defensively, he’s gotten a lot better, keeping guys in front of him. The expectation level for him is pretty high.”
It has to be.
First of all, the Hornets don’t have a wealth of talent at small forward, although Lance Thomas is having a very good training camp and Darius Miller is showing a lot of potential, making a push for the starting job.
However, like Aminu, Thomas comes from more of a power forward background, but he is not as athletic. Miller was drafted to play more of a sixth-man role the way he did at Kentucky, and although he is a true small forward, he also is not as athletic as Aminu.
Secondly, at small forward, Aminu will face many of the NBA’s gunslingers, players who are some of the league’s top athletes as well as tremendously skilled.
In the Western Conference’s Southwest Division alone, the Hornets will face the Memphis Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay, the Dallas Mavericks’ Shawn Marion, and the San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginobili and Kawi Leonard four time each this season.
Not to mention games here and there against Miami’s LeBron James and Boston’s Paul Pierce, among others.
So if Aminu can continue to develop, it would be a big plus for a team with potential that for now is taking baby steps.
Aminu, for one, remains encouraged. He is believing in his quickness, length and pride.
“I believe I can play defense (on the perimeter),” he said. “And I think I’m getting better and better.”
Offense is where his struggles have persisted since coming to the Hornets from the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade last season.
Coach Monty Williams has told Aminu he doesn’t have to contribute the way more natural small forwards do with their teams. It will be just the opposite: His job will be to play off players with more high-level offensive games, such as shooting guard Eric Gordon and power forward Anthony Davis.
In that way, his post abilities will be an asset.
“I think (Williams) just wants me to realize what I’m doing out there,” Aminu said, “meaning, if I have someone smaller on me, of course it’s smarter just to go inside. He preaches just play basketball … and make sure I make smart plays. Don’t complicate it by making sure I’m on the inside or the outside.”
Williams is optimistic, he said, because of Aminu’s athletic ability. He said he’d like to see Aminu use it more.
“He’s one of the best athletes in the league,” Williams said. “I want to see him run more. I’d like to see him get two layups a game just by running.”
Gates said he’s trying to teach Aminu the difference between when he is open for a jump shot than when there’s an open lane to drive.
“He is literally capable of driving from the perimeter to the rim in once bounce,” Gates said.
And it appears Aminu is listening well to admonitions to attack the rim.
In the Hornets’ preseason home opener against the Charlotte Bobcats on Oct. 9, the second game of the preseason, he helped set the tone for a brutal inside game by driving to the rim repeatedly.
In the first quarter, he made two of three shots and all four of his free throws in scoring eight points. He finished the game with 12 in the Hornets’ dominating win.
He was aggressive from the start when the Hornets were routed by the Houston Rockets in the fourth preseason game, scoring nine quick points in the first quarter. He finished with 15.
In other games, he has been less impressive.
In the Hornets’ most recent game Thursday at Atlanta, for instance, he was 0-of-3 from the field and finished with four points on free throws in nearly 19 minutes.
So when Saturday’s intrasquad open scrimmage attended by fans at New Orleans Arena started with Aminu on the bench for the White team, and Miller in the starting lineup, it looked as though the Aminu-at-small-forward experiment was officially over.
Not true, Williams said.
“We’re just looking to see some things; there was nothing to that,” he said. “We’re not going to give up on it after just five preseason games.”
The scrimmage consisted of two 12-minute halves.
When Aminu entered at the 9-minute mark of the first half, he substituted in as a power forward, even matched up against Davis.
And Aminu’s big-man instincts looked evident as he went for offensive rebounds and played post defense.
However, at the 3:30 mark, he came in as a small forward and was matched against Xavier Henry. After a pick, he wound up on guard Austin Rivers on the perimeter and defended well.
Offensively, he drove strong to the basket twice, although he didn’t score, with one shot rimming out.
Then, at 1:07, Henry tried to drive to the goal, and Aminu quickly moved in front, drawing an offensive foul that caused the White team bench to erupt in cheers.
It’s the kind of potential Aminu has that Gates said makes this experiment worth continuing.
“More and more, he shows glimpses of it,” Gates said. “(Last season,) he cut to the basket against Boston, and it was so quick and he really got up. (In this preseason), he had a play against Orlando in which he played great defense on the perimeter and just smothered the shooter when he tried to shoot. He had a play where he drove to the basket and just got up on an elevator.
“He’s got God-given talent, and he works hard on his game every day.”
It remains to be seen what effect Gordon’s return will have on Aminu and the Hornets’ offense. An exceptional shooter, Gordon is able to break down defenses with his driving and set up open shots and dunks for teammates.
He is out with a sore right knee but is expected to return by the end of the preseason, certainly by opening night.
Meanwhile, the tutoring of Aminu continues.
Williams and Gates can’t wait until he puts it together, if he puts it together.
“We need him to defend, first and foremost,” Gates said. “He’s got great athletic ability, which really fires up the team. He has size, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think for his progression, (which is) defend, rebound and run the floor, he’ll be great.”