• Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.

    Prior entries: Zach CollinsSeth CurryWade BaldwinAnfernee SimonsCaleb SwaniganNik StauskasJake LaymanGary Trent, Jr.

    Player: Al-Farouq Aminu

    2018-19 salary: $6,957,105

    Position: forward

    Age, experience: 20, second year

    Measureables: 6-foot-9, 220 pounds (7-foot-3 and 1/4 inch wingspan)

    Strengths: defensive versatility, length, quickness, hands, defensive rebounding, ball security

    Weaknesses: ball handling, isolation scoring, finishing,

    Swing factor: spot-up 3-point shooting

    Likely role: starting forward, defensive stopper

    Playing for a better team, one with multiple high-level creators and spot-up marksmen, Al-Farouq Aminu might be considered the modern game’s preeminent role player. But for the Portland Trail Blazers, stuck in the muck between realistic hopes of contention and a steadfast adherence to rebuilding, the progress Aminu made in 2017-18 was almost entirely overlooked on a national level. More frustrating, his strong playoff performance was obscured by the Blazers’ struggles, exacerbating the weakness he’s worked so hard to fortify.

    Aminu shot a solid 36.9 percent from 3-point range on 4.9 attempts per game last season, both career-best marks. He was even better against the New Orleans Pelicans, knocking down 13-of-30 from beyond the arc, good for 43.3 percent shooting. Unfortunately, Alvin Gentry’s team was perfectly content allowing Aminu space to launch, focusing instead on shrinking the floor at the point of attack to marginalize Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Aminu, those aforementioned strides notwithstanding, just isn’t the type of shooter who will make defenses pay on a possession-by-possession basis for treating him like a non-threat. He’s a nurtured shooter rather than a natural one, occasionally prone to streaks of misses that make him reluctant to continue letting fly even when the numbers suggest he should.

    There’s some measure of value in that hesitance. As last season wore on, Aminu grew increasingly comfortable passing up open shots early in the clock, confident a similar opportunity or better one would materialize as Portland probed the defense. They ultimately would, for the most part, and the Blazers were better for it as a result. But Aminu’s accuracy dwindled the longer he waited. According to NBA.com/stats, he shot 41.4 percent from three in the first nine seconds of the shot clock, compared to just 35.4 percent thereafter – attempts that accounted for nearly three-fourths of his total number of tries. Just imagine if Aminu played for a team that ranked better than last in pace, let alone one whose offensive identity was firmly rooted in pushing the ball up the floor at every opportunity.

    All accounts suggest the Blazers will play faster this season, a change that should work in Aminu’s favor. Ball-handling struggles make him little more than a catch-and-shoot option in the half court. Portland fans know all too well the most likely outcome when he puts the ball on the floor more than two or three times. The improvements Aminu has made as a shooter aren’t supplemented by additional comfort elsewhere on offense. At 28, entering his ninth season, hopes of Aminu adding some versatility to his game have almost completely evaporated. He’s strictly a play finisher, not a play starter.

    That limitation would be less debilitating on a team-wide basis in a vacuum, but is hardly harmful enough to Portland to make his presence a liability altogether. Far from it. Aminu received two votes for All-Defense last season, a drastic under-representation of his play on that side of the ball. At 6-foot-9 with a wingspan just over 7-foot-3, longer than Kawhi Leonard‘s, he’s capable of guarding high-scoring wings, suped-up big men and playmaking guards. His 2.37 defensive real plus-minus ranked 28th overall, and opponents shot 57.5 percent against him at the rim, just a hair worse than they fared against Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Aminu isn’t that type of game-changing defensive monster. His effectiveness is more muted than players of a similar physical profile, notable less for highlight-reel blocks and steals than it is long-armed contests, well-timed help and relentless activity on the defensive glass. If Terry Stotts makes good on his preseason talk of implementing more switching this season, though, Aminu’s defensive impact should reach new heights. Pairing him with a bulked-up Zach Collins in the frontcourt could be the answer to what plagued Portland in the playoffs last spring, preventing the dribble penetration and transition confusion that made offense come so easily for the Pelicans.

    Either way, Aminu’s importance to the Blazers this season will be greater than most realize. He’s flawed offensively and not a defensive panacea, but improved 3-point shooting and a newfound embrace of his role makes Aminu a quality starter for Portland, just as he would be for most any team in basketball. Let’s see if the Blazers’ new style allows him to become anything more.

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