Alexis Ajinca was drafted with the 20th overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats. To give an idea of the depth of that 2008 Draft (headlined by Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Roy Hibbert) the next six selections after Ajinca were:
- Ryan Anderson, New Jersey Nets
- Courtney Lee, Orlando Magic
- Kosta Koufos, Utah Jazz
- Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
- Nicolas Batum, Houston Rockets
- George Hill, San Antonio Spurs
Five of those players are at minimum rotation players in the playoffs this season. Hill ($8M), Anderson ($8.3M), Batum ($11.2M), and Ibaka ($12.3M) all made big bucks this season on long term deals. All salary numbers, as always, come from Sham Sports. The 2008 Draft was incredibly deep. Nikola Pekovic, DeAndre Jordan, Omer Asik, and Goran Dragic were all drafted in the second round.
Ajinca was a project. A quick read through his Draft Express Profile tells you as much. The physical tools and potential were out of this world though. His 7'8.75" wingspan is the second largest in the entire Draft Express database, and was the largest at the time he was drafted. At the time of the draft he was just 20 years old.
Saying Ajinca struggled in his first three seasons in the NBA would be an understatement. He shot just 41.9% from the field while struggling mightily with fouls, racking up 7.3 personal fouls per 36 minutes. His PER remained well south of a rotational player and he struggled to corral rebounds at the expected rate, posting a TRB% below 14.0%. He bounced around from Charlotte to Dallas and then to Toronto.
In the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons Ajinca toiled away in Europe, playing first for Hyeres-Toulon and then for Strasbourg. It was in 2012-13 (15.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 59.2% FG%) and the beginning of 2013-14 (17.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 55.8% FG%) that Ajinca really started to put together the expected promise of those absurd physical tools.
Alexis Ajinca rumors began circulating in the middle of December, and by the 17th Alexis Ajinca was reported to be on his way to the Pelicans. His contract, according to Sham Sports, is for two years at the league minimum. As Oleh mentioned in the initial welcome story, Dell Demps has a pretty good track record of picking role players out of Europe; Gustavo Ayon and Brian Roberts are two prominent examples.
His first action came wearing a nameless number 12 jersey against the Portland Trailblazers. In just 16:42 he pulled down 11 rebounds, and managed to be called for 5 personal fouls. The dramatic increase in rebounding was a welcome sight, the foul trouble was a haunting reminder of his previous struggles in the league. As Oleh mentioned in the recap, Ajinca's foul of Dorrel Wright on a three point heave was particularly egregious.
Injury to Jason Smith
The Portland game was also the first game Jason Smith missed all season. Smith would play just seven more games all season long while Ajinca would be moved into the starting lineup off and on throughout the rest of the season. Ajinca's best game of this early portion of the season came in a blowout loss to the Indiana Pacers (who I do not believe are even related to the Indiana Pacers currently in the playoffs) where Alexis scored 17 points to go with 7 rebounds and just 2 fouls in 32 minutes. As you will see below, Ajinca's best games throughout the season would come against team who play a large "traditional" center like Hibbert.
Ajinca started five straight games while Smith battled injuries. Then Jason Smith came back and started three consecutive games as a four game losing streak extended to eight. Sadly that would be the end of Jason Smith's season. Then Greg Stiemsma was shuffled into the starting lineup (despite no apparent injury to Ajinca). The starting center musical chairs game had just begun.
Ajinca would move into and out of the starting lineup for apparently no reason at all throughout the season. Ajinca started 13 consecutive games (including one at PF beside Greg Stiemsma against Minnesota) and the Pelicans went 7-6. After two close losses to the Knicks (91-98) and Bobcats (87-90) Monty Williams decided a change was in order, and back in went Greg Stiemsma. After three more losses Stiemsma was out and Ajinca (along with Tyreke Evans) was back in as the starter for eight more games; the Pelicans went 3-5. Back in with Stiemsma for 13 of the next 14 games (the one game Stiemsma did not start was the win over the Miami Heat when Anthony Davis started at center). Finally with Stiemsma injured and then waived Ajinca was back in at center for the final three games.
Ajinca did find an opponent he could play quite well against. In three games against the Los Angeles Clippers he put up double-doubles on three occasions; first on February 24th, then on March 1st, and finally in a win on March 26th. In those three games matched up against DeAndre Jordan Ajinca put up 14.3 PPG, 11 RPG, and shot 56.6% from the field. Unfortunately Ajinca also fouled out of two of those games and had 5 personal fouls in the third.
A Potential Answer?
Ajinca would also have quality outings (again marred by foul trouble) against Houston (Dwight Howard), Oklahoma City (Kendrick Perkins), Portland (Robin Lopez), and Memphis (Marc Gasol) during the season. He did struggle mightily against DeMarcus Cousins, racking 19 personal fouls in just 58 minutes, good for an unbelievable 11.7 fouls per 36 minutes. Compiling Ajinca's stats against these five "traditional" centers in the Western Conference plus two Eastern Conference foes (Hibbert and Charlotte's Al Jefferson) provides a pretty mixed bag of statistics over the course of 20 games and 375 minutes.
Ajinca actually plays quite well against traditional centers, besting his season marks for points and rebounds per 36 minutes (12.4 and 10.5 respectively) while increasing his field goal percentage (54.4% on the season). Sadly, his foul rate also increases from an unsustainable 7.1 per 36 minutes on the season to a somehow even worse 7.3 against teams employing a "traditional" center.
However, his fouls are not singularly on the man he is guarding (save for Cousins who simply abused him). Instead, as Oleh mentioned in the recap of Ajinca's first game as a Pelican, many come on illegal screens (although that decreased as the season went along for the team as a whole) and by reaching and swatting at every ball that comes within range of those ridiculously long arms.
His defense on post-ups was actually quite good. On 85 post ups Ajinca allowed 0.79 points per possession according to Synergy Sports. To compare, Joakim Noah also allowed 0.79 on 231 post ups, Tim Duncan also allowed 0.79 on 205 post ups, Marc Gasol allowed 0.76 on 108 post ups, and Dwight Howard allowed 0.74 on 135 post ups. The Pelicans also rebounded the ball better with Ajinca on the court than off according to 82 Games.
Ajinca's ability on offense is significantly improved from his first stint in the NBA. According to Basketball Reference Ajinca made 49.3% (38/77) of his shot attempts between 10 feet and the three point line. For comparison sake Jason Smith made 45.1% (94/208) of his shot attempts from the same distance. Continuing along the comparison with Smith (as those two are the best current options on the Pelican roster) Ajinca is a better rebounder (17.2% TRB% to 12.3%). As both players logged a similar number of minutes (Ajinca with 951 and Smith with 830) this data is relatively comparable.
Ajinca is not without problems. First and foremost, as mentioned repeatedly above, is the fouling situation. The hope will be that the coaching staff can help curb that tendency, and that is not without merit. Jason Smith fouled at an unsustainable rate (6.0 fouls per 36 minutes) before arriving in New Orleans and has brought that number down to 4.6 per 36 in four seasons. Is that still very high? Absolutely. But Smith could put in 20-25 minutes a night. An off-season with the coaching staff, focusing on the verticality display we are sure to see in the playoffs, and building more strength all will help.
Second, Ajinca had a dramatic increase in his turnover rate, turning it over on 18.4% of his possessions according to Basketball Reference. Fixing that is more a function of scheme than his ability in my opinion. Ajinca was simply so aggressive when he got the ball on the elbow to initiate sets that it led to unnecessary risks. Bringing that number down could happen by eliminating some of those touches and better execution. Playing with an NBA roster and not the mix of borderline NBA players he did most of this season will also eliminate many turnovers.
I am aware of those games midway through the season when you play against Charlotte and Al Jefferson goes for 30 then the next day you play against Nene and he goes for big numbers. Those are tough games to swallow because you would like to have somebody in the middle on a night in and night out basis that you don’t have to help as much on defense. I think those are the best defensive teams where they have a guy at the center position that can hold his own. And it is twofold for me because there were times that guy on the other team, there were nights they would put him on AD and AD would have two or three guys trying to guard him. So it is not just a defensive presence but that guy has to be able to play both ends of the floor where his guy has to guard him and now AD can go at some of these power forwards that run from him because most power forwards can’t guard him.
Reading that I think it is important to mention two things. First, Nene is a power forward who played most of his minutes that night beside Marcin Gortat. Second, Al Jefferson is the best back-to-the-basket big man in the game right now. AND Monty Williams played Greg Stiemsma 19 minutes (he posted a -17 +/-) while he played Alexis Ajinca just 14 despite a lack of foul trouble (he posted a +3 +/-) against the Bobcats. Oh, and those two games, despite big men going for big numbers, were both decided by one possession each. Ajinca had a positive +/- in both games (+6 overall) and Stiemsma had a negative +/- in both games (-22 in total).
Ajinca is worth more trust than Monty Williams evidently has in him. The numbers bear it out. Not only is Ajinca a better player, but Monty still went to Stiemsma (performing terribly) over Ajinca in the two specific examples Williams uses to advocate for a new big man. In addition, Monty Williams is unaware that Nene plays power forward or that his 29th and 30th point came thanks to a defensive decision (Brian Roberts on John Wall instead of Austin Rivers) which is solely on Monty's shoulders.
Ajinca might be an answer for the 18-20 minutes a night the Pelicans want from a center. He is a decent defender (possibly better than average if he can stop fouling) and is much better on offense than anyone expected considering his first tour of the league. At league minimum a 26 year old healthy big man with his skill set is a deal, but not quite a steal. Should he exorcise his fouling tendencies, expect Dell Demps to be charged with larceny.