Is Al-Farouq Aminu an elite defensive player?
One of Al-Farouq Aminu’s biggest strengths coming into the NBA was his defensive potential, as he had impressive athleticism and work ethic while at Wake Forest. While it took him a few seasons to adjust to the differences in defending in the NBA, Aminu has certainly improved as a defender over his three year career. Entering his fourth season, is Aminu ready to join the ranks of elite perimeter defenders?
Defensive metrics don’t tell the whole story on Aminu but some of them show that Aminu is start to show some promise as a defender. Basketball-Reference’s On-Off Data show that the defense of the Pelicans suffered without Aminu on the court, as the opponent’s effective field goal percentage and offensive rating increased with Aminu sitting. 82games.com estimates Aminu’s defensive value by position, which demonstrates he can find success defending shooting guards and small forwards while struggling against bigger forwards. Finally, RAPM might be highest on him defensively, as he graded out at a positive 3.63 points.
Does the video line up with this positive outlook of Aminu? His physical tools are evident, as he has quick lateral movement which allows him to stay in front of offensive players and an impressive wingspan that bothers shooters, both off the dribble and on catch and shoot attempts.
The pick and roll clips below demonstrate these physical tools, as Aminu fights through the screen (either by going above or below the screen, depending on the situation) and recovering quickly to take away dribble penetration or force a tough mid range shot.
This quick recovery blows up the pick and roll and the offense is unable to execute. Aminu is at his best when defending the ball and these clips begin to show why. He is able to make up a large amount of ground in a small time and then use his length to bother the ball handler.
Aminu is one of the top ranked defenders against pick and roll handlers, ranking 6th according to My Synergy Sports, surrendering only 0.53 points per possession (PPP). He will often guard the opponents best player, which puts him in these situations often and he has shown he can shut down this action.
As we began to see from Aminu’s pick and roll defense, he is great at stifling isolation attempts by his opponent. His footwork is good, dictating where he wants the offensive player to go. In this clip below, Aminu’s feet are positioned well to take away dribble penetration from Barnes.
After Barnes jab steps toward the middle, Aminu slides to cut off penetration there, forcing him baseline. Barnes recognizes this and begins dribbling along the baseline but Aminu is fast enough to recover and challenge the shot attempt.
Aminu’s footwork here was excellent, as he made Barnes drive to the baseline, toward the help and was able to recover to help challenge the shot attempt. Aminu’s Synergy numbers aren’t great when just looking at isolation (0.96 PPP allowed) but when opponents try to drive on him, he makes it difficult for them to execute.
Part of what makes him so great defending isolation is his wingspan, which allows him to bother dribblers from a distance. His 2.4% steal rate ranked 10th among forwards last season and many of these steals came by poking the ball away during penetration.
While Aminu does many things well on defense, he still has some work to do to become an elite defender. First, one of the reasons he is able to cut off penetration, even against quicker players, is that he often plays off the offensive player a step or two after the catch. You can see that in the Barnes frame above as well as the frame below, as he guards Lebron James.
Aminu gives the player he is guarding plenty of space to shoot over him, despite his length when his hands are up challenging shots. With this much of space, offensive players have no problem shooting over him without being bothered. Aminu will need to begin to creep closer to take away the jump shot while still being able to cut off dribble penetration. His footwork is strong enough at this point that he should be able to achieve both of these, which will make him a tougher defender.
While Aminu’s defense on the ball is excellent, he definitely needs some work off the ball. Part of the problem was due to his teammates, as Aminu had to scramble due to the mistakes of his teammates, which put him out of position on his own responsibilities. The Pelicans had the 27th best defensive rating as they gave up 1.1 PPP.
Below, after Austin Rivers gets beat easily off the dribble by Isaiah Thomas, Aminu has to step over and help on the drive or he will give up an open lane to the rim. However, this leaves his man open for the easy pass after Aminu steps in front of Thomas.
The rest of the clips below show this in other ways, which hurt Aminu’s defensive numbers (and possibly perception). Since Aminu has to help in ways he shouldn’t need to in order to try to correct his teammate’s mistakes, he leaves his man wide open.
Aminu is in great position here to help and then recover to Barnes in the corner. Again, Rivers gets beat off the dribble (and then gives up on the play) so his teammates need to bail him out.
Whether by design or inability, Eric Gordon does not rotate over to cut off penetration. Therefore, Aminu needs to step up to cut off the penetration, which leaves his man open in the corner.
Many times last season, Aminu had to help far off his man in order to compensate for the mistakes of his young teammates. Therefore, he left his man wide open for the easy assist after Aminu helped on penetration. While he is doing the right thing in most of these plays, these situations could affect his perception, as his man is often the one left open.
Not all of the points Aminu gives up are the result of his teammates mistakes, as Aminu still has plenty of room for improvement. Whether it is a result of not having confidence in his teammates to execute or his own mental mistakes, Aminu has a tendency to over help or put himself out of position, leading to open looks for his opponent.
With Goran Dragic penetrating the lane, Aminu makes a mistake by rotating over, even though his teammate is in front of Dragic. To compound this mistake, his positioning is wrong, as he has his back to the sideline, which will hurt him when he tries to closeout.
With so many Pelican players converging on the ball, Dragic finds Luis Scola at the elbow. The rotation out to Scola should probably be the closer teammate, with Aminu rotating out to the corner. His teammate is out of position as well though, so Aminu sprints to close out on Scola.
Due to his poor positioning initially, Aminu cannot get to Scola in time and Scola is able to shoot the jumper over Aminu. Aminu may or may not have been able to get there if he was in proper positioning but what is clear is that his poor positioning is a main reason why he was not able to get there. If he had his back to the baseline, he might have been able to get out to Scola to take away the jump shot (although Scola likely would have swung the ball to the corner, which ties back to the last point of Aminu being a victim of his teammates mistakes).
Whether it is being one or two steps out of position, facing the wrong way or making the wrong read, Aminu still has some work to do off the ball to become an elite defender. While some of these mistakes are likely due to the deficiencies of his teammates, Aminu needs to focus more on proper positioning off the ball.
This last play is a microcosm of Aminu on defense. First, his teammates make a mistake on the pick and roll, leaving the roll man wide open which forces Aminu to rotate over. Aminu is quick enough to close out on Danilo Gallinari and take away the three point shot attempt. After Gallinari gets the ball back, Aminu sags off him to take away dribble penetration and Gallinari shoots right over him.
At this point, its premature to put Aminu in the elite of perimeter defenders. However, its clear that Aminu is a useful defender, especially on the ball, with room to grow and the potential to become an elite defender. He has been charged with guarding a variety of skill sets, from the fast point guards like John Wall to shooting guards like Paul Pierce and finally bigger forwards such as Lebron James and Kevin Durant. He can hold his own against the players and should be considered a capable defender going into this year.
Hopefully, as his teammates mature, they will improve as defenders which will help Aminu improve off the ball as well. He won’t have to rotate over as much, which will not take him out of position. He’s a great on ball defender but needs to step closer to shooters and trust his footwork, believing he will still be able to cover penetration. It might be a few years away but if Aminu continues improving defensively, he could become one of the top perimeter defenders in the league.
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