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Al-Farouq Aminu: The Chief of Consistency

Spencer Davies speaks with Al-Farouq Aminu about an old conversation that shifted his career mindset, adapting to an evolving league and his outlook on the Trail Blazers this year.

Spencer Davies

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Al-Farouq Aminu remembers when he was on a minimum contract.

It was five summers ago in 2014. The Dallas Mavericks had signed him to a two-year, $2.1 million deal with a player option for the second season.

After playing as a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers and spending the next three years in New Orleans—including the Pelicans’ inaugural campaign—due to a trade, the Mavs brought Aminu in as a free agent for depth purposes at the wing.

At the time, Dallas boasted a roster full of veteran talent: Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Richard Jefferson, Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson, Monta Ellis, Raymond Felton, Charlie Villanueva and J.J. Barea—plus Rajon Rondo and Amar’e Stoudemire—each had eight years of experience or more.

“This was the first time I actually had like really old vets,” Aminu recalled to Basketball Insiders. “I always was on the youngest team in the league, and then a lot of the times our vets were hurt or different things like that. They weren’t around us in order to just to be able to soak up stuff.

“So I wanted to really use the opportunity to learn from [them] because I wanted to model my career after some of these guys.”

Richard Jefferson was in his 13th season as a pro on his fourth different team in as many years. He’d been coming off a productive stay with the Utah Jazz where he played a critical role as the guiding voice for an extremely youthful group.

It turns out that, in Dallas, Jefferson would provide the same type of insight to a then-24-year-old Aminu.

Little did the young forward know that a simple conversation with one of the wisest in the game would dictate the direction his career would go.

“We was talking about different players and he was telling me,” Aminu described. “He was like, ‘Ah, from a coach standpoint, this guy – I wouldn’t take him over this guy because I’d rather know what I’m getting every night then to get something sporadic.’

“He was like, ‘Man, I’d rather be a guy who the coach knows exactly every night what they’re gonna get than to be a guy that’s up and down, that might get 20 one night and two the next night.’ I knew I took that to heart when he told me that. And I remember that stuck out to me.”

In 28 minutes of action at the TD Garden against the Boston Celtics, Aminu registered one made field goal for the Portland Trail Blazers.

He attempted just two shots on the night. The first was an eight-foot miss on a baseline turnaround just outside of the paint in the opening moments of the game.

It wasn’t until three quarters later that Damian Lillard found Aminu in the corner, where he nailed a contested three to push his team’s lead back up to eight with less than five minutes to go.

The significant moment in the final period answered Marcus Smart’s and-one from the previous possession and shifted the momentum back in the Blazers’ favor in the process.

This goes without mentioning Aminu’s heads-up re-route pass to Jusuf Nurkic after the catch of an inbound for an easy two. Or the pair of steals earlier in the contest. Or the nine total rebounds.

If you look at the preceding game vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers, Aminu was tasked with guarding a red-hot and rejuvenated Kevin Love—and Portland’s four-man passed the test with flying colors.

En route to a victory, Aminu limited Love to 12 points on 3-for-9 from the field. In the 46 possessions the two were matched up, he blocked the All-Star twice. Plus, as it happened in Boston thereafter, Aminu nailed a crucial fourth-quarter triple to take the wind out of the home team’s sails.

The numbers aren’t gaudy, nor is the style of play. It all goes back to the talk with Jefferson, and—as a veteran himself now—Aminu hopes to pass that same message on to players that are in the shoes he was once wearing.

“It’s just so hard for a team to build anything when you don’t have players that are willing to be consistent in what they do,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders.

“I try to make sure that I do that, in order to show the younger players as well that every night you don’t have to try to go for home runs. Just remember to keep hitting these singles and it’s gonna get you through the 82. That’s what I say.”

Aminu’s parallel between basketball and baseball morphed into using an example of perhaps the greatest point guard in the history of the NBA to illustrate his point.

“Some guys they go for the home run plays. Some games they’re good, it works or whatever the case may be,” Aminu said. “But then, sometimes it shows off as a big deficiency. That’s a choice.

“You could look at Magic Johnson and see a couple plays where he [did] like wild passes or whatever and think like, ‘Oh wow. That was so cool. I wanna do that.’ But he picked and chose his moments in order to make plays like that. You just have to be smart about it.”

In a league loaded with superstar talent and flash on the floor, Aminu aims to bring the same energy, production and focus every single night. He doesn’t have to do anything else other than being a star in his role.

Since joining the Blazers after one year in Dallas, Aminu—nicknamed “Chief,” which is derived from his first name’s meaning in Nigerian—has absolutely succeeded in doing so.

“He’s been a constant for us,” Portland head coach Terry Stotts said. “We’ve relied on his defense for all three-and-a-half years. He usually has a tough assignment guarding bigger players. He takes the challenge of that every night.”

Aminu’s outlook may differ from those with the desire to knock the ball out of the park on a daily basis, but don’t mistake it for complacency. Stotts sees him come in on off days, so the man is constantly putting in the time to find ways to better his game—sharpening his jumper, improving his handle and finishing around the rim.

“He’s just been a guy that we’ve just grown to count on every night,” Stotts said. “I think you’ve gotta give Chief all the credit.”

Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, a four-year teammate of his with the Blazers, commends Aminu’s daily commitment.

“I think he’s been consistent with his work ethic,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “I think he’s been consistent with his approach every day. Improving his jump shot from when he first got into the league to now being a guy who can shoot 36, 37 percent from three.

“And his defensive versatility and understanding who he is—being able to guard multiple positions, being able to rebound – I think all those things are reasons why he’s had success and why he’s a key part of our team.”

Stotts and McCollum aren’t wrong about his turnaround on the perimeter. Over his first five seasons in the league, Aminu attempted just one three per game and only made 28.6 percent of those rare attempts.

In Portland, the story has changed dramatically. In three of the last four years, Aminu has hit at least 36 percent of his three-point attempts. And during that span, he’s averaged over four attempts beyond the arc.

Adapt or perish is the old adage. However, Aminu lives by those words in the present day as the game of basketball constantly evolves.

“When I first came in, I didn’t ever think I was gonna play a four because the guys were like 250 [pounds],” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “Now, I’m playing four.

“And then, threes weren’t as big back then either. You wanted to get to the rim. So then now, you’ve got guys having to learn how to shoot threes and where to shoot threes and different things like that.”

He recalls when Portland took on the Washington Wizards at the beginning of the season. Markieff Morris, somebody who Aminu had scouted predominantly as a mid-range threat, buried the Blazers with a career-high six three-pointers en route to a win.

“I mean, it takes a lot of work to learn the skill once you get to this level,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “You already made it to the highest level, and then in order to be able to switch up your game, I really got a lot of respect for guys that’s able to do that because the league is forever changing. They’re learning.”

In researching different avenues to refine his game, Aminu admittedly likes to keep a close eye on the playoffs.

“It’ll teach you – because it’s a copycat league – what you’re gonna need to do next,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “And guys that are able to make that adjustment, sometimes it just shows you how much work they put in.

“I know that it might not always look like it because it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do.’ But in order to stay in this league for as long as some guys are able to and stay consistent, you have to be smart and you have to put in the work.”

The Blazers are off to a torrid start post-All-Star break. They’ve guaranteed a winning record on their season-long, seven-game east coast road trip already, and in convincing fashion. Riding a five-game streak, they also happen to have won 12 out of their last 16 games.

“Schedule has kinda given up a little bit, which has been helpful,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “And then also, we just clicking and playing together. We’re just trying to continue to do what we’ve been doing. It’s been a good season thus far. Sometimes you get a good little stretch and we just gotta learn how to prolong it.”

Recently, the front office brought in Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere via trade and veteran big man Enes Kanter through the buyout market. Portland was doing just fine before those moves, but these acquisitions have bolstered their roster’s depth to a point it hasn’t been to in quite some time.

Stotts went as far to agree with Basketball Insiders that this is the deepest the Blazers have been in the past three or four seasons. Aminu believes it’s “hard to say,” though he is optimistic about the team’s future with the fresh talent and the guys who are already there getting acclimated to the shift in rotations.

“New additions have been great – high IQ, able to come in and learn the plays and get into rhythm and understand how to play with us really fast,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “So I really tip my hat off to them about doing that.

“I commend not only the new guys, but the vets that have been here that minutes have changed a little bit—just the professionalism that it takes in order to do that, to be able to do your job no matter what. And we’re just gonna need to continue to do that because, obviously, that’s the task at hand.”

The fact that Portland has scoring threats like McCollum and Lillard helps *just* a little bit, too.

“They obviously make your job easier and that’s what your job is to do, too, to make theirs,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders.

While Aminu’s traditional statistics may not be the loudest, there are metrics that surely support his impact.

According to Cleaning The Glass, the Blazers are a net 10.6 points per 100 possessions better with Aminu on the floor, placing him in the 92nd percentile relative to every NBA player.

ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus has Aminu ranked eighth (2.40) among power forwards seeing over 20 minutes per game. Perhaps more impressively, he is sixth in RPM wins (6.01) at his position, only behind the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Pascal Siakam, Blake Griffin and Thaddeus Young.

Pretty solid company if you ask this writer.

So far in the second half of the season, Aminu’s average plus-minus is a plus-19.8 in four games.

In asking Aminu how he maintains such a steady output, his response is straightforward.

“It just takes work,” Aminu told Basketball Insiders. “You just learn how to do it just from watching a lot of film, too.

“Be consistent in the same thing that you do and your work and everything like that, you know what I mean? Off the court and on the court. It’s just a mindset I feel like.”

As the Blazers gear up for the remaining stretch to avenge last year’s postseason shortcomings, they’re going to need Aminu to continue to be himself—and there’s no indication that he won’t hold up his end up of the bargain.

The Chief arrived a while ago.

He’s not leaving anytime soon.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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