Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik were the most hotly debated free agents among New Orleans Pelicans' fans this summer. As fate would have it, both were re-signed to extensions. This past summer, Ajinca received a 4-year, 20 million-dollar extension. So what does he need to do to earn his keep for New Orleans this year?
Last season, Ajinca was the most inconsistent performer on the Pelicans squad. There were stretches during 2014-15 where he looked like an All-Star caliber center, carrying to the team to much needed wins. Nonetheless, Ajinca's lack of natural athleticism caused him to endlessly foul for being a habitually late defender.
Still, in his own odd French way, he was the unexpected savior of the Pelicans 2014-15 season. When Anthony Davis was out late in the season with a shoulder injury, Ajinca did his best Davis impersonation. In short, he carried the Pelicans offensively many of those lonely (super) starless nights.
Alas, Ajinca's flame burned so bright, by the end of the season it had all but extinguished. When the Pelicans needed Ajinca to step up in the playoffs against a smaller Golden State Warriors team, he was a no show.
To be fair, his proclivity to disappear, both in the regular season and especially in the playoffs, was due in some measure to Monty Williams' infamous short leash. Ajinca played a grand total of 10 minutes in 4 games, but his 36 per minute playoff numbers indicated he could have provided plenty of offense.
Under Gentry's new regime, could we see Ajinca continue to grow and become a more consistent performer?
In Alvin Gentry's new up-tempo system, Ajinca has the most to gain, but the most to lose as well. Gentry's system is the kind of game planning that could inspire more confidence in all his players, including Ajinca. Perhaps, more confidence is what he needs to become a more consistent player.
Regardless, Gentry's system caters to Ajinca's strong suit, offense. Moreover, with many of the Pelicans players concentrating on their 3-pt shot, he should have more room to operate in the paint.
It's not hard to envision a world where Ajinca becomes the offensive juggernaut that we all saw glimpses of last season while Anthony Davis was out. It's also not hard to envision a world where his mind and body are not capable of keeping up with Gentry's fast paced tempo.
Ajinca is starting this season off with a hamstring injury, which makes me nervous about how his 7' 2" frame will hold up over an 82 game season. Further, he will need to have a high functioning understanding of both the offensive and defensive concepts in order to maximize his potential this season.
It's no secret that Ajinca is a bit slow-footed (which is fair, the guy is 7' 2" for crying out loud!).
If he doesn't have a firm grasp on both the Pelicans' defensive and offensive concepts, he will continue to be a habitually late defender, and likely find himself lost on offense as well.
Ajinca is a player that Pelicans fans have come to love the past two seasons. This season, however, he will not have anymore excuses for his inconsistent play. He is no longer an NBA newbie, and Monty Williams was shown the door. For Ajinca, this season offers the potential for the big man to either seize a quasi-starting role or forever remain questionable bench fodder.