What are the Pelicans getting in Alexis Ajinca?
In a surprising move yesterday, the New Orleans Pelicans were said to have come to an agreement with 25-year-old French center Alexis Ajinca, a former first round pick of the Charlotte Bobcats, currently playing in his homeland for Strasbourg. Ajinca has been back in France since leaving the NBA after the 2010-11 season - nevertheless, by deliberately signing a contract with Strasbourg that had an NBA out clause, Ajinca hadn't given up on the big league, and it clearly given up on him.
Ajinca was largely forgotten about in the NBA discourse by fans and media, but has become a prominent figure in European basketball in the past year or so. He has been one of the leaders of a resurgent Strasbourg team, who have struggled in recent seasons yet finished runner-up in the French league last season and found themselves a path to the Euroleague, and while they have struggled there (bottom of group B with a 2-7 record), Ajinca's play has been a bright spot. The one time NBA drop-out has developed noticeably as a player, and not just as the shooter he looked like he was becoming. Indeed, he is headed more towards Chris Bosh than Channing Frye.
(Note that that is a style of play comparison, rather than a level of play.)
Ajinca's NBA career to date has been somewhat unsuccessful, yet also somewhat maligned. Arguably, he wasn't given enough opportunity. He played only 552 NBA minutes in three years, and was distinctly poor in the first two, spending much time in the D-League yielding only mixed results. However, such struggles are to be expected from one so young. There is not much point in drafting a 20-year-old international big man universally acknowledged as being raw, and then not spending the amount of time and patience it takes to develop him. Yet this is seemingly what Charlotte did - after almost not picking up his third year contract option, they dealt him to Dallas as a side part of the already terrible Tyson Chandler deal, thereby getting absolutely no return on their investment except salary relief.
While it is true that Ajinca had shown next to nothing in those first two years, projects rarely do. They need time, and Ajinca didn't get it. After being traded to the Mavericks, Dallas declined his fourth year option, and a subsequent controversial trade to Toronto proved to be only a few months of a reprieve. Neither team committed the necessary time to a project who needed it; neither, it seemed, felt as though he merited it. After all, he wasn't their project - they did not need to save face with him. So when Ajinca started to make progress in his third season, it was mostly overlooked. The 44% shooting stood out more than the 12.6 PER (which, while not great, is sufficiently NBA calibre, a significant improvement on his first two seasons, and altogether not bad from a 22-year-old) and he fell out of the NBA.
Since that time, though, Ajinca has continued to develop. The weaknesses his time in the NBA and the D-League demonstrated have been worked at. One such question surrounded his toughness. Ajinca is still not especially tough - it will be hard for him to ever be truly bulked up, as he just has not the frame for it. His skills are inclined towards that of a finesse player, and he plays accordnigly. But he is tougher. Furthermore, he is more skilled. He is smarter. He makes fewer mistakes. And he is far, far more productive.
Ajinca has developed over the course of his career, particularly his French career, and is deserving of his place back in the NBA. He has found his role as a player - gone (mostly) are the three-point shots, replaced with a mid-range, pick-and-roll based game (admittedly with more emphasis on the roll than the pick) interspersed with hook shots from down low, with shot creation and shot making skills, a much improved offensive talent. He was averaging 17.1 points in only 24.9 minutes per game of Euroleague play - in the toughest league outside of the NBA, Ajinca has shone brightly, emerging as one of the best centers on the continent, and particularly so offensively.
Ajinca would have played more minutes were he not so foul prone still. Certainly, Ajinca still has more to do on the defensive end. Despite his height and wingspan making him a quality shot blocker and unignorable defensive presence, the mistakes and inconsistent decision making remain, and the development has been more offensive than defensive. Nevertheless Ajinca's rebounding rates improve year on year, whilst his shot blocking remains, and the offensive production continually increases. He is now that which he was not quite before - an NBA calibre big man. And aged only 25, further improvements are no doubt forthcoming.
It is rare for NBA teams to pick up players from Europe, and particularly the Euroleague, mid-season. Nevertheless, following in San Antonio's footsteps in picking up Aron Baynes, the Pelicans have hit up that market and potentially shored up their weakest position with a solid prospect.