The small forward position in the NBA is where the holes get patched.
The player at the three usually is the most versatile player on the court -- he can guard multiple positions and seamlessly shift from the wing to the post -- while providing the necessary balance a five-man unit needs to function cohesively.
For years and years, the Los Angeles Clippers have employed no one capable of providing the balance that the small forward position typically provides. One of the most tenured Clippers of all time, Corey Maggette, was an efficient scorer but a defensive liability and a black hole offensively. Quinton Ross, the starting small forward during the Clippers' playoff season in 2005-06, was the yin to Maggette's yang: great defensively, but a disaster with the ball in his hands. For a while, the Clippers thought they may have had their long-term answer with Al Thornton, but he devolved from an athletic supporting scorer to a guy who played with blinders on both ends of the floor. Rasual Butler performed admirably last season for the Clippers as a stopgap solution, but even he was streaky and far too reliant on the temperature of his jump-shot.
Instead of the small forward patching holes for the other starters, the Clippers have perpetually compensated for whomever they plugged in at the three.
Enter the 6-foot-9 Al-Farouq Aminu from Wake Forest, the Clippers' selection at No. 8 overall in the NBA Draft on Thursday.
Can Aminu be different than the players who came before him? General manager Neil Olshey seems to think so.
"We've kind of disguised a lot of twos as threes over the last few years," Olshey said in the team's press conference. "Now we have a prototypical, 6-foot-9, long-armed, explosive athlete, rebounding machine who is going to add length to our frontline.
While that all sounds good, there's still no denying that Aminu is incredibly raw offensively. Will Aminu pick up the slack for the Clippers or just create more of it?
It's important to maintain some perspective here. Like a kid who makes his first Christmas wish list in March, the Clippers' desired needs for their small forward of the future grew as time carried on. What they required, simply, was a small forward who could stretch the floor with his perimeter jumper, distribute, make plays off the dribble, defend bigger threes and the best twos, rebound well, draw offensive fouls and do it all with a great big smile on his face.
The problem? That player doesn't actually exist. Aminu isn't perfect, and he's got a lot of growing to do, but he fills needs.
After trading Marcus Camby last year, the Clippers posted the worst defensive efficiency number of any team in the league while winning just eight games in 30 tries. When the Clippers were flirting with a .500 record and playing their best basketball, it was because their defense was hovering right around the 12th- or 13th-best in terms of efficiency. When the defense tailed off, the season took a nosedive right along with it.
Defensive rotations are a tricky thing to master in the NBA, but Aminu is the most gifted defensive prospect the Clippers have drafted in years. With an outrageous 7-foot-3 wingspan, good foot speed and a penchant for hounding ballhandlers, Aminu projects to be a good stopper who can realistically cover four positions. In addition, Aminu will allow the Clippers to go small if they choose to with Blake Griffin at center. It may take a while for Aminu to fully grasp the concept of help defense, but all signs point to him having the raw talent and instincts to do so.
While the Clippers should improve defensively with their dynamic new forward tandem, it's on the glass where Aminu's presence will be felt right away. The Clippers' starting wings for most of last year, Eric Gordon and Rasual Butler, were the 48th- and 52nd-worst rebounders out of the 53 wing players who played over 30 minutes a game last season.
"We've been one of the poorer rebounding teams in the league at the small forward position," Olshey said. "We just added the leading rebounder in the ACC at the small forward position. I think we've all learned that rebounding translates."
The Clippers have long needed to pair the vertically challenged Eric Gordon with a bigger wing capable of drawing the more physical assignments defensively while also clearing the glass. Aminu, despite some deficiencies, more than fits those requirements.
After years of failing to adhere to one ideology on the court, the Clippers are forging an identity as a basketball team. Were there more skilled offensive players available at pick eight? Certainly, but part of the reason the Clippers chose Aminu was for his dedication to the unglamorous parts of the game. For a franchise notoriously plagued with players who took a "me-first" approach, Aminu represents a fresh alternative.
The process of rebuilding and rebranding a franchise is often a slow and painful one, but by selecting Aminu the Clippers are showing that their priorities, at long last, are in the right place.
D.J. Foster is a staff writer for Clipperblog.com and has contributed to ESPN.com's TrueHoop Network.