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.
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