Al-Farouq Aminu was pegged for big things at an early age.
As many of you know by now, Aminu's family comes from a long line of Nigerian kings, and his name literally translates to "The Chief Has Arrived". For this tall, lanky kid who played his high school ball near Atlanta, Georgia, arrival meant distinguishing himself in one of the biggest hotbeds of under-18 basketball talent in the country. Aminu was a McDonald's All American and one of the top recruits in his class. After two productive seasons at Wake Forest, he was selected with the 8th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Though initially taken by the Los Angeles Clippers, Aminu was a key part of the blockbuster trade that sent Chris Paul from New Orleans to the West Coast.
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If you were going to construct a basketball player purely by physical traits, you would probably come up with something close to Al-Farouq. Standing 6'9, Aminu has an enormous 7'3 wingspan, huge hands, and possesses athletic ability few small forwards can boast. In college, Aminu averaged a double-double despite weighing 215 pounds, and teamed with former Norcross high school teammate Gani Lawal to provide the Demon Deacons with two of the higher profile players in the ACC.
Still, despite all this talent, Wake Forest was viewed as something of an underachieving squad during Aminu's time there, and for Al-Farouq himself, questions remained about exactly what position he would play. Given the dreaded "tweener" label, Aminu played a lot of smallball four in college, but he lacked the bulk or strength to project there full-time at the next level. Though he had more than enough athletic ability to transition to small forward, his shooting and dribbling skills were not quite developed enough to make him an obvious offensive contributor at wing.
Being raw was acceptable for a young lottery pick that oozed what baseball scouts would call "tools", but fast forward four years and suddenly Al-Farouq Aminu was a veteran who had still yet to develop a semblance of a jumpshot or reliable offensive move. While it might have been extreme to use the word "bust" so soon, the plain and simple fact was that Aminu had never averaged more than seven points per game in a season, which is assuredly not what was hoped for when he was tabbed as such a high draft pick.
Released into the wild of NBA free agency, the Dallas Mavericks scooped him up on a one year deal worth just a little under $1 million. Perhaps they remembered his 20 rebound game against them as a member of the Pelicans. Freed from expectations and given a role more befitting his salary and skillset, Aminu became an important reserve off Rick Carlisle's bench, providing highlight reel plays but also substantive qualities that were desperately needed given the deficiencies on the roster: namely, defense and rebounding.
As the season wore on and both trades and injuries began to sap the depth of the team, Aminu was given more and more playing time. Although he struggled to shoot the ball in regular season's final month and a half, you could tell his confidence was growing as he continued to play with infectious energy. By the time the playoffs arrived, so too had The Chief.
With Chandler Parsons out with a knee injury, Aminu stepped in against the Houston Rockets and for large stretches of play dominated the game. Most striking was his three-point shooting (63 percent for the series after connecting on just 27 percent during the regular season), but Aminu also attacked the basket and earned several trips to the free throw line, and he didn't allow all that offense to hold him back at the other end, as he collected five steals in Mavericks' final game.
Unsurprisingly, Aminu recognized that his stellar play was well-timed, and opted out of the second year of his deal.
Contract status: Earned $981,084 in '14-'15, opted out of second year worth $1,100,602 to become unrestricted free agent
It's funny how perception changes everything.
"Al-Farouq Aminu: top 10 pick" was a disappointment for New Orleans under head coach Monty Williams, who could never quite find the right deployment for Aminu's combo forward playing style. The Pelicans had a pair of outstanding power forwards already with blossoming mega-star Anthony Davis and super-sub Ryan Anderson. They also had plenty of perimeter playmakers who need the ball in their hands. That didn't leave much for Aminu to do, and certainly made it difficult for him to be worthy of the money, time and other resources that had already been spent trying to develop him.
"Al-Farouq Aminu: minimum salary signee" was, by most accounts, a success in Dallas, even if the raw results don't necessarily suggest any kind of overwhelming transformation. Rick Carlisle spoke at length about how he had tried to enable Aminu to do more by allowing him to operate freely on offense, even if it meant making mistakes. Al-Farouq still has yet to establish himself as a true playmaker or a legitimate outside threat, but there were undoubtedly flashes of the player Aminu could one day become.
Dig a little deeper into the numbers and it's easy to see why everyone is so excited about him. Aminu posted career-bests in several metrics, such as PER, win share rate, and real plus-minus. In terms of defensive real plus-minus, Aminu ranked sixth in the league at his position, finally capitalizing on his elite length, quickness and leaping ability. Aminu was asked to guard every position on the court with the exception of center, and demonstrated lockdown potential as a man defender. Even better, Aminu has become one of the best help defenders and defensive playmakers the Mavericks have had in years, as his block-rate led all small forwards, and his steal rate was fifth among small forwards. In the playoffs, Aminu showed the world his skills with several electrifying chasedown blocks, including this one.
Unfortunately, all these superlatives do not come without a price -- specifically, the price in annual salary that it will take to retain Aminu's services going forward. Back in late January, one could have projected Aminu to come back on deal close to the Bi-Annual Exception, which would be a little under $3 million. After his terrific playoff run, that seems unlikely.
So how high does Dallas go? Further clouding this question is the health of Chandler Parsons, who had surgery on his knee recently and has been mum on details as to what his timetable for recovery might be. If Parsons is not fully healthy by the start of next season, having Aminu would be one hell of an insurance option, but keep in mind how little wiggle room Dallas might have given all their other free agents and their reported interest in the "big fish" out there, such as DFW's own Lamarcus Aldridge.
If Dallas strikes out once again with the big names (and let's be realistic here: most likely they will), I would submit to you that retaining Aminu should be a priority. Even if you don't necessarily have a place for him in the starting lineup(since I'm guessing shifting Parsons to off-guard is not in the cards), Aminu's defense and versatility are huge, especially as the lovable Dirk Nowitzki continues to slow down. I still have nightmares of Houston bringing Dirk out for high pick and rolls and exploiting his poor lateral mobility. Aminu as a part-time smallball 4 man could pay huge dividends, especially if he can improve his outside shot.
Now, as impressive as Aminu's playoff run was, one should not get too carried away in projecting Aminu's devleopment. Keep in mind, this is a still a player with career averages of 6.4 points and 5.3 rebounds, and that is not by random chance. If he receives a raise in salary equivalent to, say, the full midlevel of $5 million (a contract close to what Dallas gave another former No. 8 overall pick, Brandan Wright), suddenly the expectations change, and you're still looking at a player with serious flaws.
What is Aminu's ceiling? Looking back, I saw a lot of similarities in the career path of Trevor Ariza. Like Aminu, Ariza bounced around a little, playing with three teams before hitting free agency as a 24 year old in the summer of 2009. Like Aminu, Ariza was a long, athletic, defensive-minded kid who had never shot the three-ball particular well until a breakout playoff performance, where Ariza caught fire as the Lakers marched to the finals. Like Aminu, Ariza used that performance as the basis for seeking a significant raise.
What should be noted, however, is that Ariza did not immediately continue to perform at the level his contract implied he would. Ariza struggled shooting the ball for several years, and even today could still be aptly described as "streaky". He has become a quality starter, though, who's defensive versatility, transition offense, and occasional floor-spacing make him a valuable contributor. That may not be stardom, but it would be a pretty solid return on an investment for Dallas, right?