Focus on rebounding, paint presence benefits Aminu

By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer

New Orleans Hornets head coach Monty Williams would prefer that you not call it a “doghouse,” but as the 2012 calendar year drew to a close, Al-Farouq Aminu’s game-night accommodations often consisted of cushy courtside seats in several of the nation’s major basketball arenas. Over the course of consecutive December games in Los Angeles, San Antonio, New Orleans and Orlando, the 6-foot-9, third-year pro was one of the tallest spectators in the building, picking up four DNPs as the Hornets extended a lengthy losing streak.

Just over a month later, Aminu has responded in exactly the fashion every team hopes to see from a player who’d been benched. Instead of moping or complaining, the 22-year-old did a self-examination of his game and put into practice some of the things Williams and the Hornets’ coaching staff had been telling him.

The results speak for themselves. After bouts with inconsistency in November and December, a re-energized Aminu was the team’s most improved player in January. He moved into the starting lineup in conjunction with Eric Gordon on Jan. 5, and quickly turned into a hustling and rebounding force. While starting the final 14 games of the month – a stretch in which New Orleans went 8-6 – he averaged 8.1 points and 10.0 rebounds. He’s had 10 double-digit rebound games in his past 14 games. Prior to that, he accomplished the feat just three times in 26 outings.

“I think I just found my niche in this team and saw where I could help the team out,” Aminu explained of his surge. “I’m just trying to fulfill that role.”

“It wasn’t a punishment,” Williams noted of electing to sit Aminu during the late-December stretch. “We weren’t getting the production from that (small forward) spot, so you try to find somebody else who can (provide it). We knew Al-Farouq was a guy who can do it. We don’t have a doghouse or anything like that. I just felt like he had to sit for a while, to do some soul-searching and understand what I wanted. He’s playing better, with more activity and more energy. That helps him get more minutes.”

The soft-spoken Aminu agrees, saying that Williams’ nine years of experience as an NBA small forward give the coach a unique perspective.

“I respect him and what he tells me,” Aminu said of the third-year head coach. “He’s just trying to make me better. He used to be a small forward himself, so he expects a lot out of me. I expect a lot out of myself as well. He just wants to get the best out of all of his players.”

Critical to the Georgia native’s improvement has been his focus on staying near the paint on offense. If he’s open, Aminu still must take perimeter shots, but with the understanding that jumpers should not be his bread-and-butter. Williams believes Aminu has too much natural ability and athleticism to not fully capitalize on those tools.

“He’s one of the best athletes in the league,” Williams complimented. “For him to not be around that rim, getting those tough rebounds that a lot of (forwards) can’t get, I think that takes away from what he can do to be effective for our team.”

Williams has stressed that he wants the Wake Forest product to take on the in-game mindset of a relentless rebounder or slashing wing such as Shawn Marion (in his Phoenix prime), as opposed to trying to play like prolific early-1980s scorer Bernard King. King was an All-Star small forward in his heyday, but a relatively average athlete who was lethal on mid-range jumpers.

Playing closer to the basket also helped Aminu bump his field-goal percentage from 41.3 in December to 47.5 in January. He’s already significantly reduced his number of three-point attempts: he fired 47 last season, but has only taken 14 in 2012-13. That total was a far-too-high 143 as a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Physically, not too much has changed,” Aminu assessed of his jump in effectiveness as a pro. “Mentally, I’ve grown as a player, gotten smarter, learned the system. Those things have all helped.”