Alexis Ajinca returns to NBA with Pelicans
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
PORTLAND – If you ask fellow France national team member Tony Parker, the Alexis Ajinca who signed with the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday bears little resemblance to the Alexis Ajinca whose first NBA stint was from 2008-11. The prior version of the 7-foot-2 Ajinca appeared in 71 games over parts of three mostly disappointing seasons, after being picked 20th in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats. After spending 2011-12 and 2012-13 playing professionally in Europe, Ajinca was praised by the San Antonio Spurs’ All-Star point guard this summer for his vast individual improvement.
“Alexis Ajinca has made a lot of progress,” Parker told Euronews.com. “This is the big surprise for me personally. He is a different player from the one I first saw in 2009.”
Along with fellow French NBA players such as Parker and Portland small forward Nicolas Batum, Ajinca helped the national team win the 2013 European Championships in Slovenia. The center was averaging 17 points per game for Strasbourg in Euroleague play this season. “I’ve improved my game inside,” Ajinca said after joining the Pelicans. “Right now I’m more efficient and can score around the basket, get defensive stops and get rebounds.”
The 25-year-old believed New Orleans was the right fit for him partly due to its youthful roster. The Pelicans also had recently sustained front-court injuries that hurt their depth at center.
“The Pelicans are a young team, with an average age of around 24 or 25,” Ajinca said. “I’m around that age. They have a lot of bigs, but Anthony (Davis) was hurt, and (Greg) Stiemsma is still hurt, so I may have a couple minutes on the court. I think it’s a good team for me to fit in and hopefully help the team as much as I can.”
After being chosen in the ’08 first round, Ajinca only lasted two seasons with the Bobcats, appearing in 37 games. He split the 2010-11 season between Dallas and Toronto. His NBA career averages are 3.1 points and 1.6 rebounds in just 7.8 minutes per game.
“He’s still a young big. He’s been through some trials in the NBA, but he’s really had some success overseas,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work as well as he would’ve like it to (during his first NBA stint), but he’s got some length and some tools that we feel can help us in the future. We like his progression in the past year. (Pelicans GM) Dell (Demps) and his staff have been talking about him for a while.”
Despite his 7-foot-2, 248-pound frame, Ajinca is 12-for-36 from three-point range in his NBA career, more comfortable away from the basket than most bigs. He’s also a 70 percent free-throw shooter, an area that can be a problem for many centers.
“He’s obviously got a lot of size and length,” said Pelicans power forward Ryan Anderson, who coincidentally was selected 21st in the ’08 draft, immediately after Ajinca. “He’s a very skilled guy. There aren’t a lot of guys who are seven-foot-plus who can have that touch around the rim. He can really shoot the ball, even the three-ball. He has a lot of skill along with his size, which is a rare package.”
Ajinca will be available to play for New Orleans in Saturday’s game vs. Portland (22-5), though it’s uncertain what his role will be short term.
“He’s a really good kid. He has some length and some athleticism that we don’t have," Williams said. "Once he figures out what we do, we feel like he’s going to help our team. We’ll put him in our player development program, and he may get thrown into the fire (Saturday) night, you never know.”