WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Al-Farouq Aminu wasn't supposed to be here this long.
Conventional wisdom suggested Aminu would play one season at Wake Forest before entering the NBA draft. Instead, Aminu - a 6-foot-9 forward - has returned for his sophomore season to try to help Wake Forest make amends for a surprising first-round NCAA tournament exit.
Aminu says he knew he would return for his sophomore season before he ever started his college career. Even the rampant speculation that he might get taken in the lottery couldn't change his mind.
"When the season goes on, people are trying to tell you this and that," Aminu says, "but if you stick to your [original] plan, that's usually the best decision."
It certainly was the best decision for Wake.
The Demon Deacons already had to replace All-ACC selections Jeff Teague and James Johnson, who left school early and were drafted in the first round. If Aminu also had departed, it would have dealt a devastating blow to Wake Forest's NCAA tournament hopes. Aminu instead wanted to build up his résumé while assisting a program that finds itself at a crossroads.
Wake emerged as one of the biggest surprises of the 2008-09 season when it won its first 16 games and soared to the No. 1 ranking. Instead of building on that success, the Deacons went 8-7 the rest of the season and fell to Cleveland State in the biggest upset of the NCAA tournament's opening round.
Rather than being remembered as one of the nation's most improved teams, Wake was seen as a half-season wonder. Aminu says he believes the Deacons have learned from their late-season tailspin.
"Last year, me in particular, I don't want to say I didn't know how to get up for some games, but I didn't [always] know what to expect," Aminu says. "Experience lets you know you need to do this, this and this. A year under everybody's belt is going to be really big for us."
Expanding his game
Another season of experience could prove particularly beneficial for Aminu. Although he arrived at Wake from Norcross (Ga.) High as the No. 7 prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, Aminu is younger than most of his classmates and won't turn 19 until Sept. 21. Aminu believed he needed another year of experience to gain the maturity to play in the NBA.
What's in a name?
Wake Forest forward Al-Farouq Aminu has learned to enjoy having an unusual name.
"It's not like when someone says, 'Al-Farouq,' five people turn around," Aminu says. "It's just me. You might get a couple of jokes here or there, but I don't mind that."
The origins of his name are no joking matter. Aminu descends from a line of Nigerian kings, and Al-Farouq means, "The chief has arrived."
His older brother, former Georgia Tech forward Alade Aminu, also has a name with great meaning in Nigerian culture.
"My father's dad was a king in Nigeria," Aminu says. "My brother's name means 'the resurrection of the king' because he was the first one born after my grandfather died. I got my name because I was the second child, so it all goes together."
Aminu, who grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, still hasn't visited Nigeria to get a first-hand look at his family's royal history.
"It's kind of expensive," Aminu says. "Hopefully I will be able to one day. I have family [from Nigeria] that come here, though, and they tell me stories and things like that. It will be a great opportunity when I do go there."
Aminu also wanted to follow the example of former Wake Forest star Chris Paul, who left school after two years but now is working toward his degree. Conversations with his brother, former Georgia Tech forward Alade Aminu, reinforced that opinion.
"He said two years under your belt really make you a better player," Aminu says. "You make a really big jump and become a better player between your first and second year.
"Two years of education doesn't hurt, as well. 'CP' was able to come back and is trying to get his degree. If you do only one year [of college basketball] and you still have three years of education to do, it looks so far away, like it's impossible to do."
Aminu intends to spend his sophomore season diversifying his game to make himself a more attractive prospect. While he averaged 12.9 points and 8.2 rebounds last season, Aminu also showed he had plenty of room for improvement. He particularly wants to upgrade his marksmanship after going just 7-for-39 from 3-point range as a freshman.
His inability to shoot from beyond the arc was evident to ACC opponents, particularly those within his own family. The scouting report on Aminu says to allow him to take the outside shot because he probably wouldn't make it.
"I'm not saying he couldn't shoot it, but sometimes with players you have to pick your poison," says Alade Aminu, who finished his college career last season. "Nowadays, if I take a step off, he's knocking one or two of them down or maybe making three or four in a row. During the season, you didn't have to respect [his outside shot] as much. Now it's getting to the point where you're going to have to respect it more than before."
If Aminu could add a consistent 3-point shot, it could make him one of the ACC's most complete players. Aminu's ability to play either forward position already makes him a matchup nightmare. If you guard him with a bigger player, he can beat them off the dribble. If you try your luck with a smaller player, he can post them up.
He won't necessarily have those types of matchup advantages in the NBA. But if he can put on some muscle and add a 3-point shot to his arsenal, it would make him that much more valuable.
"The thing with Farouq is he would have been a first-round draft pick this year," Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio says. "The question I asked him is did he want to get drafted or did he want to have a long career.
"He wants to have a long career."
Knowing what it takes
Aminu signed with Wake as part of a heralded recruiting class that also featured five-star prospects Tony Woods and Ty Walker. Aminu believed his class could help make the Deacons a national contender. He also didn't want to go to school near a big city that might offer too much temptation.
ACC'S next wave
No first-team All-ACC selection returns this season, but that doesn't necessarily mean the league will take a step back in 2009-10. In fact, the latest 2010 mock draft from draftexpress.com has six ACC players going in the first 16 picks.
"It's a small school and it's not in the city, so there aren't a lot of distractions," says Aminu, who grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross. "We always say, 'It's so boring, you've got to be good.' "
While Wake played well early, the Deacons' immaturity was evident late in the year. Aminu says the team worked particularly hard before games with big-name opponents but occasionally went through the motions before facing unranked foes. He admitted they didn't take Cleveland State seriously enough. Aminu and Co. learned their lesson when they could only sit in their dorm rooms and watch as North Carolina won the national championship. Wake Forest had beaten North Carolina 92-89 in the only meeting between the two teams last season.
"They got better, and we didn't," Aminu says. "We stayed the same, while they kept getting better. The year before that, they went to the Final Four, so they knew what it would take when they got into the tournament. That's why I don't see last year as a disappointment. I wish we would have gone a little farther, but just entering that tournament and seeing that atmosphere is going to help us a lot."
Though Wake Forest lost its top two players from last season, Aminu says he believes this team has a realistic chance of at least advancing to the Sweet 16. Walker and Woods figure to have bigger roles as sophomores. Center Chas McFarland and guards L.D. Williams and Ishmael Smith offer the senior leadership that was missing last season. Complacency won't be a problem.
"The hardest part is not always getting there," Aminu says. "It's maintaining it. Now that this team has been No. 1 in the country, it kind of knows what it takes."
Aminu already has what it takes to earn a spot on an NBA roster, but he could afford to delay his big payday for one more season. He wanted to make more than a cameo appearance in college. And he intends to make sure Wake Forest doesn't settle for a cameo role in the NCAA tournament.