After making the playoffs last season, the Orlando Magic added Al-Farouq Aminu on a three-year deal in hopes that he could push them over the edge. The 29-year-old is a versatile forward who can defend multiple positions, and he’s coming off a Western Conference Finals run with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Aminu is still getting acclimated in Orlando, but he’s providing veteran leadership to the Magic’s young core and contributing to the team’s excellent defense, which ranks fourth-best in the league (as they’re allowing just 99.4 points per 100 possessions). HoopsHype caught up with Aminu to talk about joining the Magic, leaving the Blazers after four years, adjusting to a new team, being one of the top high school recruits in the country and more.
What was your free-agency process like and why did you decide to join the Orlando Magic?
Al-Farouq Aminu: I like that they’re a young team and I thought that I could bring some veteran leadership to them. Also, they went to the playoffs last year, so I knew they had a good team. I like their style of play and different things like that. I’m glad I made that decision.
How is the adjustment process going? I know when you join a new team, you have to get used to a new team, new system, new coaches, new city and so on. What’s that transition been like?
AFA: Like you said, it’s a lot of new things coming at you. But that’s why we’re professionals; we have to figure out the different ways that people play and the different schemes – all of the different ways that we’re going to attack with this team. Also, you’re adjusting in your home life. You’re getting settled in and moving all of your furniture and things like that. It’s a big adjustment, but it’s coming along smoothly.
You’ve changed teams several times throughout your career. In your experience, how long does it take everyone to get acclimated?
AFA: It just depends, man. It’s so different from team to team because of the schedule, the preseason being even shorter now and things like that. It matters who you’re playing too. It’s a mixture of things, so I think it really varies. Sometimes, it takes people a while. Sometimes, it just clicks early. It’s a number of things that have to happen for the personnel to click. But we’re starting to find our stride a bit.
Since arriving in Orlando, what’s been your first impression of the team and the city?
AFA: Aw man, it’s been so great. It’s a big change from Portland because now I’m in a sunny state. I’m wearing shorts today! It’s kind of surreal to still be wearing shorts at this time of year. It’s been really nice, man. It’s a nice change of pace, for sure. There’s a really cool energy around this team. We have a lot of great guys. From top to bottom, everyone has a really great attitude, so that makes you enjoy coming in to work. It’s nice. All of the guys are great. They’ve exceeded my expectations, for sure.
You mentioned that you were attracted to this team because of the young core (Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz, etc.). Do you get excited when you think about what this team could become?
AFA: Yeah, for sure. I really wanted to play a part in molding them. In a couple of years, when these guys are in their prime and doing their thing, it’ll be cool to be able to say that I put my touch on that. That’ll be cool. I was talking to them the other day and I told them, “Ya’ll are going to make a lot of money! Ya’ll play the right way, ya’ll are young and the league is just changing. Guys are getting paid.” I like to play around with them (laughs). But if they keep playing the same way that they’re playing now, they should be able to do okay for themselves.
I was impressed with the strong culture that you guys created in Portland; it was built around working really hard, trusting each other and having an us-against-the-world mentality. How is the culture in Orlando and what can you do to contribute to it?
AFA: They brought back a lot of the same team, so they’ve already kind of started it. My job is just to come in and add on to it, to build upon what they already have in place. I don’t feel like there’s any need to switch up their whole culture or anything. I think they’re heading in the right direction, so I’m just trying to add a couple things that I’ve picked up over the years from being a vet, having some success and winning.
I remember one day JI (Jonathan Isaac) was like, “Man, are you always the last one to leave?” He thought it was funny. I told him, “I like to stay and take my time when I’m at the facility. I have to get in all of my treatments and things like that. This is the only thing that we have to do. You don’t need to be rushing home.” There are little things like that, I think, that add to the culture. But these are guys who are already hitting their stride; it’d be different if they were rookies, but these are guys who get it. And they’ve had good vets like DJ [Augustin] and some of the older guys on the team who kind brought things together. I just feel like I can add another element.
Last year, you went to the Western Conference Finals with the Portland Trail Blazers. What was that like and did you take away any things that you can pass on to your new teammates in Orlando?
AFA: It was fun to do. You’re obviously trying to win the grand prize, but every experience like that helps you eventually get there. I think it was a really cool experience. You start to learn what it takes to win in the playoffs. There are things that work in the regular season and then, over the years, you learn what works and what doesn’t work in the playoffs.
Like I was saying about staying in the facility late, I remember I used to always think to myself, “Wow, these guys are playing all the way into July?!” It was hard for me to wrap my mind around that. But you start to understand what you need to do in order to prepare your body to go through that. Sometimes, you only understand what it takes to get through 82 games. Well, you have to learn what it takes to get through another 20-to-25 games. You have to win another 16 games, so you learn how to prepare your body for that and then do it. You have to do more than what you normally do and that’s something you learn from experiencing it. They understand that here because I’m always preaching that. Sometimes, you have to take your own lumps and go through it yourself though.
You were with the Blazers for four years and you had a lot of success there. And I know you were close with some of the players there. Was it tough to leave Portland this past summer?
AFA: Kinda sorta. It was [tough] because I’m leaving the guys I was playing with, but a lot of the guys ended up leaving anyway, so it was kind of like, “Well, nobody is there.” Not “nobody,” but you know what I mean. The gang’s not even there anymore anyway, so it wouldn’t have been the same even if I had stayed. It would’ve been weird had I stayed. It’s not the organization, it’s the people that you get to work with every day that you end up [getting close with]. For a couple of months, you see these guys and talk to these guys even more than your family. They shape you and you’re growing with each other. Then, the next thing you know, they may not be there. Sometimes, it’s just one person; like, I remember the first time it was Ed [Davis]. Me and him came into Portland together and we became really cool. Then, after three years, he was gone and that was tough. Then, I started becoming really cool with Moe [Harkless] and Evan [Turner] and now they’re gone, so it’s like man… It’s kind of already tough to make friends in this industry anyway and then guys move on. And you still get to talk to them and stay close, but it’s different. But I think that’s why it isn’t as traumatic because those guys are in different places anyway, so the gang is gone.
Guys like Quentin Richardson and DeShawn Stevenson have told me that they were really frustrated when the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks’ front offices broke those teams up because they felt like they still had some great years left in them. Do you feel like this team could’ve done some special things had the Blazers’ front office kept guys like Ed, Moe, Evan and yourself a bit longer?
AFA: We did special things!
I know, but did you guys want to stay together longer? I guess that’s what I’m asking.
AFA: Did we want to stay together longer? Yeah, always! I mean, when you’re already having success and you already like the people, it seems like a win-win. You might as well ride it until the wheels fall off! It doesn’t seem like there’s a need to break it up unless everybody is just losing too much money or something like that, then you kind of understand. Then, in a sense, the players break it up. But I didn’t feel like that was the case. It was more so broken up just because. But I’ve seen a lot of teams get broken up so it’s not really that surprising.
I recently interviewed Jonathan Isaac and he was talking about how this Magic team takes pride in their defense and that the goal is to have one of the NBA’s top defenses. Right now, you guys are ranked fourth in the league. Is that a goal that you guys discuss as a team and do you think this team can get to No. 1?
AFA: Every day, man. We discuss it every day. We want to be a Top-5 defensive team, if not No. 1. I think it’s definitely something that this team has the ability to do and we just have to continue to click together and understand where we need to be in order to do it. I think the more and more we play together and get that cohesiveness, the better we’ll become on defense. And out of the gate, we’re already talented on defense. Now, it’s just getting that continuity and that will take us over the top.
You mentioned that you want to be one of the veteran leaders in Orlando. When you were younger, who were some of the veterans who helped you the most?
AFA: I didn’t really have what I think of as veteran leadership until I got to Dallas. Then, when I got to Dallas, it was Jameer Nelson for a little bit, but then he got traded. I was able to look at what Dirk Nowitzki was doing every day. I watched what Monta Ellis did every day. Then, later in the year, Rajon Rondo came as well as Amare Stoudemire. All of those guys were great.
During your sophomore season, the Los Angeles Clippers traded you to the New Orleans Pelicans as part of the blockbuster Chris Paul trade. Did going through that teach you about the business side of the NBA at a young age? And what are some things you learned from that experience?
AFA: Yeah. Even during that first year, I started to learn about the business of the NBA and what it all means. But then in my second year, that’s when I’m like, “Wow, this is really a business.” Even before my trade, I was seeing the business side a lot because that was the lockout year too. With everything that went down, my first two years were like a business course in a sense. It kind of just opened my eyes to what the NBA really is. I appreciated it, though. In the long run, that probably helped me out and prevented me from being so naïve to the business side of this game. Sometimes, that can happen to players. But there’s no way around it; you’re going to experience the business side of the NBA at some point. I’m glad it happened to me early.
What has it been like adjusting to Steve Clifford? He’s done a great job of getting the most out of Nikola Vucevic and helping the defense. What’s it been like playing for him and his staff?
AFA: He has a very high basketball IQ and, like you said, he really understands defenses – he’s very good at that. He pushes us to be a really good defensive team, which is really cool. I’ve been with an offensive team for a while, so it’s kind of cool that the defensive end is being highlighted. It’s just a different pace. I’m enjoying it, for sure.
You were one of the top high-school recruits in the country back in 2008. I’m really interested in that. Do you think you had to mature quicker than your peers because you had so much on the line and you were under the microscope?
AFA: Yeah, of course, man. It’s like being a childhood star, you know what I mean? I remember when I transferred to my high school as a sophomore, I was coming into this school as the new kid and I thought nobody would know me and I could just try to fit in where I fit in. I remember kids being like, “Ohh, you’re Al-Farouq Aminu! We’re going to be so good this year!” They knew my stats from AAU and all of that. And this is while I’m in high school! I didn’t get to just be a regular kid and blend in. Sometimes, you just want to be able run to the store and just do regular stuff. You can’t just do what everybody else does.
But then again, when I was growing up, I always wanted everyone to think I was good at basketball. It’s like a double-edged sword. You don’t realize what that will end up being. You want to be a top prospect, but then everybody ends up knowing who you are. And a lot of people like basketball. At first, I just wanted everyone in my neighborhood to be like, “Wow, he’s really, really good!” Then, my neighborhood became the U.S., became the world.
I don’t think people realize the sacrifices that top recruits have to make too. Your friends may be partying on the weekends, but when all eyes are on you like that, you have to carry yourself differently. You’re also working extremely hard so that you can make it to the next level.
AFA: Yeah, man. I don’t think a lot of people understand. The sacrifices start early too. Now, I’m looking at my little cousin who plays football, he’s a quarterback, and he’s already making those same sacrifices at a really young age. You have to do those things if you want to succeed, though. I remember being in the gym really late and my friends would be like, “Yo, are you coming?” They’d go hang out in the neighborhood or play video games, but I’d have to be like, “Nah, I have work to do.” But my financial situation growing up wasn’t the greatest either, so it’s kind of like I just started [working] earlier than most people do.
I think Jalen Ramsey said, “You live like nobody else, so that you can live like nobody else later.” The beauty of it is that I had to mature quicker, but then when I’m like 35 years old, I’ll be able to live a life that most other 35-year-olds can’t live. It’s the long game. I’m not mad how it turned out for me… It’s a trade off.