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What to expect of Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando

The Magic’s free agent acquisition joins a crowded frontcourt. Will it work?

2019-20 Orlando Magic Media Day Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The Magic prioritized continuity this summer, locking up their own free agents and returning the vast majority of the core that made it to the first round of the postseason. In fact, the team made only one major addition during free agency, choosing to sign Al-Farouq Aminu away from the Blazers.

Aminu is a player that fits Orlando’s type: 6-9, a wingspan that exceeds 7-feet, a reputation of defensive nous, and most comfortable at the power forward slot. The team was evidently motivated to get a deal done, lobbing the entire mid-level exception his way in securing a three-year, $29 million pact within the first 24 hours of free agency. Welcome to Florida!

So what’s a reasonable expectation of the latest player to be decked out in pinstripes? Let’s dive in and take a look at what may come to pass.

The Resume

Western Conference Semifinals - Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

By many measurements, Aminu has been a solid NBA player for a few seasons now. He played and started 81 games for Portland in 2018/19, averaging 9.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in a shade over 28 minutes per contest. He added to this a combined 1.2 steals and blocks per game, while shooting 34% from range and 87% from the line. He filled an important role on a side that went deep in the Western Conference playoffs, fitting in seamlessly alongside some of his higher profile teammates.

A number of advanced metrics also spoke well of his game last season. He posted a true shooting percentage of .568, racked up 5.8 total win shares, and contributed a VORP (value over replacement player) rating of 1.7 points per 100 possessions. All of these figures were career bests. Box plus/minus figures rated him as a net positive at both ends of the court, and he was also able to protect possessions by posting a career-low turnover rate of just 9.7%. PER (player efficiency rating) wasn’t quite as kind to him, with his figure of 13.2 placing him below the league average. However, considering the equation favors counting stats and volume in the traditional box score, it’s really to be expected.

A cursory glance at these figures suggests that Aminu was a player the Blazers were better served having on the court than off, particularly defensively. He contributed the second-most defensive win shares for the team (2.8), as well as recording the fourth-best defensive box plus/minus for the Western Conference’s fourth seed (0.8 per 100 possessions). This is a trend that extended across his time in Portland.

The worry for Magic fans is that his play dipped noticeably in the playoffs, with basically every box score and advanced metric reflecting this. His shooting cratered, as he converted field goals at 35% and three point attempts at an ice-cold 29% for a true shooting percentage of just .473. Defensively he struggled to stay on the court as opponents pushed the pace and went smaller. By the end of the Golden State series he was a virtual non-entity, playing just 11 scoreless minutes in Game Four as Portland were swept out. The Warriors are obviously a dynastic anomaly, but the match-up exposed Aminu’s deficiencies in the modern game: streaky shooting, trouble staying in front of quicker opponents, and an inability to be a true difference maker at either end of the court when the pressure peaks.

Aminu has proven himself a valuable contributor to a winning side, particularly during the grind of the regular season. He makes smart plays at both ends of the court, and can comfortably operate as a complementary piece alongside higher wattage stars that need the ball in hand. The question for the Magic is whether or not a player with that pedigree -- at that particular position -- is what will help to vault them further up the standings.

The Fit

2019-20 Orlando Magic Media Day Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Immediately, as a rangy forward with some acumen for long distance shooting, Aminu seemingly fits the Magic mold. He’s another plus defender on a squad that already ranked 8th in defensive efficiency last season, and one would expect him to provide the team with another body capable of at least making the opposition’s stretch forwards work for their points (particularly when Aaron Gordon sits). The team’s quest to gather all of the wingspan continues unabated.

On offense he’s hardly the dynamic individual scorer that the bench craves alongside Terrence Ross. He’s not a guy who can score off the bounce, as the enormous percentage of his assisted made baskets proves. He’s a below average passer and playmaker. He’s only a passable offensive rebounder for his position. A kind observation would be that he knows his role and limits mistakes with the ball in hand, but that has more to do with the fact that he’s asked to do so little.

However, Aminu does provide some offensive characteristics that the Magic could potentially benefit from. It’s no secret that the corner three is one of the most valuable in the modern NBA, but last season Orlando averaged just 6.5 attempts per game from this zone. This placed them roughly in the middle of the pack, although interestingly they broke down as the seventh most prolific team from the left corner (4.1 per game) but equal last in attempts from the right (2.4). They were about average in terms of their overall percentage from the corners, so it stands to reason that by further leveraging this spot on the floor they might be able to squeeze some extra juice out of an offense that regularly struggled with consistency.

Enter Aminu. One of the features of his offensive game in Portland was the corner three, where he regularly ranked among the team leaders in attempts per game. Last season his figure of 1.3 shots from this zone would have trailed only Jonathan Isaac on the Magic, with his proclivity being for the right side that his new team are seemingly somewhat allergic to. Although he didn’t shoot a great clip from either side of the court in 2018/19 (in fact, his above the break percentage of 34.6% is actually better than his combined mark from the corners), stronger figures in previous seasons suggest that a favorable reversion is likely. As a big with an outside shot that has to be respected -- with an inclination towards a spot on the floor under-utilised by the Magic -- there’s a chance that his presence on the court further opens up the paint for slashing players like Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and (*gulp*) Markelle Fultz to exploit.

Another potentially helpful part of Aminu’s game with ball in hand is his ability to get to the free throw line. After a down season in 2017/18 he bounced back last campaign, recording a free throw attempt rate off .292 that is more in line with his career averages. That’s a figure that would have placed him second among Magic regulars last season (third if we count Wes Iwundu), and one that would certainly have helped a team with free throw anaemia. It’s certainly not a huge bump because of his relatively small usage rate, but a favorable projection nonetheless.

The Crunch

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Minutes distribution is a zero-sum game in any sporting contest; there’s only so many to go around! Adding a quality player to a team that is returning a whopping 86% of last season’s total minutes (second only to the Nuggets) means that someone is going to end up being the odd man out. The $29 million Aminu is scheduled to earn over the next three years suggests that it isn’t going to be him.

The player most likely to feel the squeeze is Iwundu, who averaged 18 minutes per game during a campaign last season in which he demonstrated tangible improvement. However, a team like the Magic -- who are looking to win now -- are much more likely to go with the established veteran, meaning that the promising gains the swingman flashed during the stretch run will count for nought when determining the upcoming season’s pecking order.

Earlier in his career Aminu was able to toggle between both forward slots, but in recent years he has played almost exclusively at the four. When considered alongside Gordon and Isaac it means that at least two of the three will have to spend some quality time sliding down the lineup, but at this respective career stage it’s much more likely to be the pair already familiar with pinstripes. Expect the free agent signing to be pencilled in as the backup stretch four.

Is it possible that Orlando’s free agent signing could slide the other way? Aminu ostensibly lined up as the center for the Blazers on some limited occasions, but it was always a matchup dependent move. At 6-9 he’s undersized but not short, while at 220 pounds he’s slight but not small. There are undoubtedly some low post players who would monster him, but with more of the game stretching to the perimeter it’s quite possible he would be able to do a more-than-competent job against opposing big men, particularly of the reserve variety.

Unfortunately, this isn’t really an option that the Magic are going to be able to explore. In Nikola Vucevic they’re already returning an All-Star at the position, while Mo Bamba and Khem Birch represent the investment of a high lottery pick and a recently re-signed and effective replacement center. There’s already going to be a minutes crunch for the center spot, so adding funky small-ball minutes with regularity isn’t really feasible.

Best guess: Aminu probably lands somewhere close to 26-28 minutes a contest, absorbing the 18 that Iwundu was deployed for last season as well as a smattering more that are trimmed from the other wings. Injuries could blow all of this plotting out of the water, of course, but at the moment it seems a solid bet that Aminu’s arrival leaves Iwundu on the outside of the rotation looking in.

They say that the more things change the more they stay the same, a feeling that the Aminu addition encapsulates. He’s a new face in pinstripes, but he seemingly replicates some of the already existing skill sets on the roster, while also sharing positional overlap with some players one would expect to be pencilled in for heavy minutes. In short, he’s a potential-laden pickup that raises more questions than answers provided. Such descriptions ensure that Aminu already feels like a typical Magic addition.

Still, squint hard enough and you can see how this one works out. Fingers crossed.