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Alexis Ajinca primed to surprise in bounce back campaign for New Orleans Pelicans

Could Ajinca find himself in the 2016-17 opening day starting lineup?

NBA: Utah Jazz at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Alvin Gentry hiring, groans resonated throughout New Orleans when the Pelicans announced they had re-signed both Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. Two slow-footed centers in an uptempo system didn’t seem to make for good ingredients, and indeed the recipe proved to be a disastrous mixture.

Asik, Ajinca and Kendrick Perkins posted below average advanced metrics across the board during the 2015-16 season. For instance, the highest PER (13.8) and RPM (-1.13) among the group belonged to Ajinca. Asik sported the best — if one doesn’t mind the use of such a deceiving adjective — Box Plus/Minus (-4.2).

When Anthony Davis failed to occupy the center position, the 5 was largely a dumpster fire. This should not be news to any legitimate basketball fan; however, did you know that long after the season was considered lost and the majority of the team’s original rotation players were sidelined with injury, Ajinca managed to impress during his concluding stretch of games?

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.

For instance, he looked fantastic against the San Antonio Spurs on March 30th, scoring on Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge and the giant, Boban Marjanovic.

Then a little over a week later, Ajinca set new career-highs in points (28) and rebounds (15) versus the Los Angeles Lakers.

In comparison, Asik averaged 11.0 points and 13.3 rebounds per 36 minutes during the same time period, yet wasn’t nearly as effective as the numbers might indicate, shooting 55.1% near the rim — a mark lower than that of reserve guards Tim Frazier and Toney Douglas! And as you probably guessed, he posted a whopping 0 FG% from out on the perimeter thanks to his severely limited range.

One would assume Asik would have lessened the disparity between the centers on the defensive side, but the rift widened even further in Ajinca’s favor. For the month of March, Ajinca held opponents to a 47.8 FG%; Asik, 58.6%. April proved even more lopsided: a 36.4 DFG% for Ajinca and a 63.0 DFG% for Asik.

But my favorite point of reference was the individual defensive ratings. While every Pelicans player who saw minutes in April resided in horrific territory — a mark above 110 (Asik had a 118.3 DRtg) — Ajinca turned in an almost incomprehensible 99.3 amid all the squaller. That’s incredible!

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering why the discussion has centered on Ajinca vs. Asik when I’ve made it well known Anthony Davis should see most of the minutes at center, and why I’ve particularly focused on a small sample size of 280 minutes from Ajinca. Well, it boils down to the opening tip of games and the start of second halves. Whether we like it or not, Gentry is most likely going to continue to start Davis at power forward so someone else is going to have to man the middle for a discernible period of time.

First, let’s disregard salary right off the bat. Earlier this summer, Gentry did exactly that when he penciled in Jrue Holiday and Davis as the only two starters on Zach Lowe’s podcast. Asik will always be an offensive liability, but for the first time in his career, his team was worse defensively with him on the floor rather than off of it. If the Pelicans want to make a legitimate run at postseason play, that cannot be allowed to occur again so I applaud the head coach for holding off on naming more starters, thereby allowing rotations to be determined in preseason position battles based on merit, not contract amounts.

Outside of Asik’s appearance with Turkey in the Rio Olympic qualifying, there has been little else to gauge his preparation for the upcoming season. The same cannot be said with Ajinca who appears to have put in serious work; littered on Ajinca’s Instagram account are videos of him working on his conditioning, specifically his lateral movement. I had to grind like that to shine like this #grind #basketball #training #teamajinca #nba : @plew39

A video posted by Alexis Ajinça (@ajincaalexis) on

Ajinca appears poised to take the court as svelte as we’ve ever witnessed in a Pelicans uniform and that’s a good thing. Improving stuff like quickness and change of direction are precisely what he needed to focus on during the offseason. According to the playtype data, Ajinca was as terrible defending in isolation as Luke Babbitt, as inept as Ryan Anderson with roll men and as awful as Tyreke Evans in getting out to spot-up shooters.

As it was evidenced above, Ajinca has shown a proficiency at dissuading shots around the rim. His defensive post-play data confirmed he can handle opponents in close proximity, but when required to cover substantial ground, he fell flat. Centers from past generations needed to only sit at or around the rim, but modern times have forced them further out on the floor. Defenders must now be able to come out to the top of the key to guard dynamic monsters like DeMarcus Cousins or Marc Gasol and to prevent pick and roll offenses from wreaking havoc. That’s precisely why Dell Demps was at one time so enamored with Asik because his defensive value far outweighed his offensive shortcomings.

My have times changed in such a short period. Thankfully, failure forces re-evaluation, and I’m sure Asik and Ajinca have dedicated the last few months so as to not repeat last season’s horror show. It’s conceivable that Asik returns to form, but I wish I could be more hopeful. Many have argued that the new coaching staff and Asik’s health not being up to par for most of the season as largely responsible for his disappointment, yet as I demonstrated earlier this month, Asik hasn’t remotely lived up to expectations since departing Houston. He is 30 years old and regarded as having structural problems with his back. Betting on him to return and maintain an effectiveness level last seen during his Chicago or Houston days seems like a longshot at best.

Meanwhile, Ajinca’s limitations were more comprised of his own volition — not being ready to perform at a high level when first called upon. As he showed during the final two months of the season, he still possesses the tools to be a productive player.

Also, don’t be surprised if the recent French team debacle further fuels Ajinca’s motivation. He is extremely patriotic so it’s not hard to envision his hurt pride wanting to prove something to the naysayers.

Prior to the last month of the 2015-16 regular season, Ajinca normally occupied one of the last seats at the end of the bench. Through the Pelicans first 68 games, he averaged less minutes per game (12.4) than the mightily disappointing pair of Omer Asik (16.8) and Kendrick Perkins (12.8). There are a number of new faces on the team that I expect to seize important frontcourt minutes including Solomon Hill and Terrence Jones; however, in order to maximize the rotations and appease Davis, one of the team’s traditional centers will start and it appears Ajinca’s odds are much higher than anyone has yet to give him credit for.

No, Alexis Ajinca is not probable to light the world on fire and become a legitimate two-way force, but his qualifying bar could be rather low. If he can reduce the number of defensive lapses and personal fouls, he could wind up being a positive contributor for however long he finds himself on the floor. That would represent a huge step forward for the New Orleans Pelicans and somewhat relieve the front office’s mistake made one year ago.