We're starting a series of Exit Interviews on the 2011-2012 Los Angeles Clippers. An overview and analysis, player by player, of all 14 Clippers that finished the season on the roster. First up: rookie small forward Al-Farouq Aminu.
Name: Al-Farouq Aminu
2010-2011 Key Stats: 5.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 17.9 mpg
Years in the NBA: 1
Years with the Clippers: 1
2010-2011 Salary: $2,563,320
Contract Status: Signed through 2012, Clippers hold options through 2014
In a Nutshell
From the moment the Clippers stayed in the eighth spot after the draft lottery last May, they had their eye on Al-Farouq Aminu of Wake Forest. The obvious need for the team was (and unfortunately remains) small forward, and Aminu was the prospect they liked, not to mention the one they thought (or hoped at least) would be available. From the lottery to the draft itself, some other threes popped up on the NBA draft radar - Gordon Hayward, Paul George and Luke Babbitt in particular - but the Clippers always felt that AFA's ceiling was higher.
After a season in the NBA, the jury is decidedly out on the choice. As frustrating as it is, we're in essentially the same spot regarding Aminu in April 2011 that we were in back in June 2010 - he's a great physical specimen, but it's far from clear that he's a particularly good basketball player. Is he the Clippers small forward of the future? It's still possible, but he's not much closer to being there today than he was when he was drafted.
This guy is long. I mean, really, really long. He has a wing span over 7'3" and stands a legitimate 6'9". It's a cliche that happens to be true - you can't teach length. He also has the lateral quickness to defend the wing. He's a very good if not spectacular athlete, and while is frame is somewhat willowy now, he's just 20 years old, and should fill out nicely to the point where he'll have good strength for an NBA three. In short, if you were designing the body of the ideal small forward from scratch, you might very well come up with something that looked suspiciously like Al-Farouq Aminu (this is in a world where the freak of nature that is LeBron James is not actually possible).
And the good news is not entirely limited to the tape measurements. Belying his overall timidity on the court, Farouq has shown an uncanny knack for taking rebounds coast to coast. For several brief but tantalizing flashes this season, he has shown the speed, athleticism, handle and ability to finish that coaches dream of from wing players - all on the same play. It's not difficult to see what Neil Olshey likes about this guy in those moments.
He's also a good rebounder. Playing power forward at Wake Forest, he led the ACC in rebounding as a Sophomore, so it stands to reason that he'd be a good rebounder from the three. His 8.8 rebounds per 48 minutes is more than respectable, and ranks him eighth among NBA threes. As he adds strength, that number should only increase.
It didn't last, but for the first two months of the season he displayed a shooting ability from long distance that few suspected or even dreamed he had. He made 32 of his first 69 NBA three point attempts (46.4%) before New Year's Day 2011. But as the new decade kicked in, his touch deserted him completely - he made only 13 of 74 three pointers (17.6%) in the new decade. It's hard to fathom that disparity - but it's worth noting that his final three point percentage of 31.5% is better than he ever shot from the shorter distance in college. It is clearly unwise to expect him to recreate the league-leading numbers he was posting at the very beginning of his career, but perhaps he can recapture some of that, and continue to develop that shot. He is after all only 20, and has only recently really begun to shoot from the perimeter with any frequency.
But it is on the defensive end where AFA could conceivably have his biggest impact. His combination of length and quickness allows him to get into passing lanes, and he seems to have a nose for the ball. His steals per 48 ranks him fourth in the league among small forwards, and when he's active he creates an inordinate number of deflections. He's got the physical tools to be a disruptive force on defense - but he's also got a lot to learn.
During Summer League in Las Vegas in July 2010, Farouq looked like a deer in the headlights - overwhelmed by the situation, unsure of what to do with the ball, when he got it. And that was just summer league! After that prelude, his performances in November and December were a massive and pleasant surprise. But somehow, the deer got right back in the road in 2011.
Aminu scored in double figures eight times over the course of eleven games in late November - and only six more times in the final 64 games. After such a promising start during which he seemed to be building real confidence, the final three and a half months were a real bafflement.
A lack of confidence would seem to be a big part of his problem - yet he also suffers from too much ambition at times, when he tries to force a pass that isn't there, or to take the ball to the rim against a well positioned defense. It may also be that his general carriage - he slumps along the floor and has a generally quiet disposition and sleepy eyes - makes him seem less confident than he is.
Whatever the reason, the reality is that his overall productivity this season was pretty anemic, even for a rookie. On a team desperate for production from the three, and given the opportunity to start less than a month into his NBA career, he responded with just 5.6 points per game, while shooting under 40% from the field and under 50% in True Shooting Percentage - two thresholds that you do NOT want to be below. He also had a penchant for turning the ball over, doing so 1.3 times per game, even in limited minutes. His assist to turnover ratio of .58 was the worst in the NBA among small forwards by a pretty wide margin.
Offensively, he has a lot of work to do. His shooting was so different from the beginning of the season to the end that it's hard to know what to think, but it certainly has to be consider a weakness going into the offseason, given how bad he's been for the final three and a half months of the year. When defenders would run him off a three point shot, he never showed much ability to go past them and step in for the shorter jumper. He might try to get all the way to the rim, but he was often an offensive foul or turnover waiting to happen in those situations. He has no post up game at all, which is both surprising and disappointing. After playing power forward in college, you might think he had developed some back to the basket moves. Moreover, he will almost certainly be defended by smaller players frequently over the course of his career if he remains at the small forward position. But at this point, he has little or no offensive game beyond filling the lane on a break or taking the ball coast to coast.
Future with the Clippers:
As of now, he's still the "Starting Small Forward of the Future". When that future arrives, or even if it will ever arrive, is still far from clear. He certainly has all of the physical tools to do the job. In fact, even if he never develops much of an offensive game, he could be a solid contributor if he continues to develop as a defender and rebounder.
His trajectory during the season is pretty troubling. Young players aren't expected to be great their rookie year. AFA entered the league a month after turning 20, and players his age invariably improve significantly after a couple of seasons in the league. Having said that, it's profoundly disappointing to see him start so strong only to revert to an earlier stage in his development as a player. Young players are supposed to get better if only gradually at first, and then lock in those improvements.They're not supposed to get better and then get significantly worse.
If the new CBA reasonably resembles the current one, Aminu will be a Clipper for awhile. Even if he continues to underperform in some areas, it's hard to imagine that the Clippers would let him become a free agent before they have to - he's just got too much potential to let him walk. So as of now it's a good bet that the team will exercise the options necessary to keep him here at least three more seasons.
Of course, there's always the chance that he will be packaged in a trade as well. The Clippers really want a proven veteran to slot into the gaping hole at the three. Ideally, that veteran would then be a mentor to AFA and help him develop into his role as future starter. However, almost any deal that might be undertaken would like involve some young talent leaving the Clippers - for the right small forward, Aminu would certainly be available in the outgoing package.
This off-season then will be important in Aminu's development. If the Clippers fail to land a new starting small forward, he'll be in the discussion to start next season, whether he's ready to or not. If they succeed in signing the veteran presence they desire, that player becomes Aminu's mentor, grooming him to one day take over the job. That's assuming, of course, that AFA is still a Clipper, and wasn't packaged up to facilitate the acquisition.