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2016-17 Player Preview: Alexis Ajinca may always just tantalize

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It might be now or never for the 28-year-old to seize a prominent role in an NBA rotation.

NBA: Preseason-Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Alexis Ajinca isn’t one of the new guys anymore — he is about to begin his 4th season with the New Orleans Pelicans. The tantalizing measurements remain: a height of 7’-2” and a monstrous 7’-9” wingspan. However, these physical advantages have failed time and again to translate into a dominating presence on the court.

Historically, Ajinca has not played an important role, but the Pelicans do not require a dominant center. All that is needed is a player who can rebound and play defense to relieve some of the burden off of Anthony Davis from consistently facing traditional centers. Thankfully AD appears 100% healthy because without the superstar, the burden would have inevitably fallen upon the shoulders of Ajinca and Omer Asik. I don’t believe any Pels fan wishes to see both of them total huge minutes, let alone start games together as was the case at the end of last season.

During media day, Ajinca proclaimed he was going to seize the starting role at the five. Although he started the first two preseason games, we must patiently wait to see if Alvin Gentry is going to follow through because Ajinca’s play has been spotty while Asik has — dare I say it — shined.

When the Brow’s season ended early due to injury, Ajinca was forced to step up and was handed a solid amount of playing time. His minutes went from under 14 minutes per game — that’s when he didn’t register a coach’s decision DNP — to 22 minutes over the final two months of the season. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the numbers were there.

Over the span of team’s final 14 games, Ajinca averaged 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, but when to per 36 minutes data, the numbers really shined: 18.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Per nbawowy, he shot 72.4% within 3 feet of the rim and a Davis-like 43.9% from 16 feet and beyond.

What I have noticed over the course of Ajinca’s career is that he lacks consistency. He is capable of good rebounding and scoring games, but it’s been hit or miss too much for anyone’s liking throughout his tenure in New Orleans.

On the positive side, he does possess certain enviable skills over Asik, such as a smooth 16-18 foot mid-range jumper. Also, he is a remarkably good free throw shooter as evidenced by a career mark of 80.7%. Very seldom do we find a traditionally sized center who possesses free-throw efficiency.

Unfortunately, rarely have we ever heard someone talking about Ajinca’s dominance. My biggest concerns are how easily Ajinca disappears defensively or manages to turn the ball over. For instance, Tim Frazier is an old-school PG who loves to spread the ball around and he is good at it too.

Frazier cares more about notching assists than scoring himself, so it’s hard to count the number of times that I witnessed Ajinca mishandle a beautiful pass from the point guard. Everyone expects this with Asik, but Alexis too? It’s inefficiencies like this that slow down the pace of an offense, one Alvin Gentry is still trying so hard to speed up.

Ajinca was the 20th pick in the 2008 draft — he is no longer a youngster — so it begs the question of whether he has any potential left to grow into a key component on a possibly postseason-destined roster.

Historically, Ajinca has been a role player, and the dollar amounts on his contract point to this. It is worthy to note, though, that 3 guaranteed years remain, so the Pelicans should first be concerned about receiving consistent value over the life of his 20.2 million contract in return.

It’s great that Alexis Ajinca believes himself to be worthy of a starting role. This is the first time he opened the exhibition season ahead of Omer Asik on the depth chart, so he may yet find himself starting the first game of the regular season. Perhaps, he can still fulfill a larger role with the organization. I suppose we’ll find out. Sadly, though, I do not think the odds are in his favor.

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Previous 2016-17 Player Previews:

{Btw, please be sure to welcome Theodore on this effort — his first article for The Bird Writes!}