After missing all of 2017-18, Alexis Ajinca hopes to return to 5-on-5 action soon

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

As 18,544 red-shirted Smoothie King Center fans roared their approval when the Game 4 fourth-quarter buzzer sounded April 21, one of the New Orleans Pelicans’ biggest supporters – both literally and figuratively – smiled at the developments taking place on his TV screen.

For the first time in his basketball career, 7-foot-2 center Alexis Ajinca was forced to sit out an entire season in 2017-18, spending it rehabilitating from surgeries to both of his knees at his home in Charlotte. Ajinca may have been away from his teammates and unable to contribute on the court, but few people had a greater appreciation for what New Orleans accomplished in sweeping Portland than the five-year member of the club (only Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday have been Pelicans longer than Ajinca). A club that finished a disappointing 34-48 in Ajinca’s first season, then followed up a playoff berth in ’15 with 30- and 34-win campaigns, had defied all prognostications by going 48-34 and notching its first playoff-series triumph in 10 years.

“It was great to see,” said Ajinca, a Pelicans signee in December ’13. “We started from the bottom – when I got here, it was tough. We had so many guys get injured, and we were still trying to find our identity. It was a rough beginning. But now we are a tough team to beat and we expect to make the playoffs no matter what.”

Ajinca, who has played in 222 games for New Orleans, would love to add to that total relatively soon, but for now he’s focused on getting back to 100 percent conditioning-wise. That won’t happen overnight, given how long he was sidelined.

“I’m back on the court, but I’m not doing five-on-five (fullcourt) yet, because it’s a matter of getting the rhythm back and cardio,” the 30-year-old said. “But health-wise, my knees are great. They’ll just be a little sore because I haven’t played five-on-five or done an intense basketball workout for a whole year. Other than that, I’m good.”

Ajinca describes ’17-18 as one of his most difficult experiences as an athlete. He spent basketball season in North Carolina, to more efficiently receive daily treatment on his knees, but that meant no gamedays, no practices and no road trips with teammates.

“It was definitely a big challenge,” he said. “I’ve never missed much time. Mentally was tougher than physically. To be far from the team, do my rehab by myself and stay focused on my goal, it was difficult. I had a lot of ups and downs, but the good thing was I had my wife and my kids with me. Every day they were cheering me up.”

The performance of the Pelicans also brightened Ajinca’s spirits, as he watched New Orleans transform from a 20-20 squad at midseason to one that reeled off separate 10- and nine-game winning streaks in March and April, culminating with a stunning 4-0 domination of third-seeded Portland.

“I was proud of the team,” said Ajinca, who tweeted after New Orleans playoff victories. “They played great. When one of our major guys (DeMarcus Cousins) was down, everybody else picked up their level. AD was tremendous, better than we’d ever seen him play. Jrue was the same way. And the addition of Niko (Mirotic) was great for us. Everyone was on point.”

As a result of an excellent close to ’17-18, when Ajinca reported for training camp this fall, he immediately noticed a difference in outlook surrounding the team and within the locker room.

“It is completely different than previous years coming in,” he said. “Right now everyone is healthy, which is also different. It seemed like every year there was something (preventing the Pelicans from being at full strength). Everyone, including the coaches and the players, is on the same page and very excited to get started. We all can’t wait to get back to work.”

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