Ajinca is good enough to play the near-twenty minutes per game we will need from our starting center. No need to go and spend significant money on a center this offseason. We have Ajinca, we have Withey. Bring back Smith or sign someone else for cheap. Focus on fortifying the SF position this summer, then go and get your center in 2015.
Season in Review: Alexis Ajinça
Nearly two months into the 2013-14 NBA season, the New Orleans Pelicans announced the signing of 7’2″ center Alexis Ajinça after buying him out of his contract with Strasbourg of the Euro League. Ajinça was the 20th pick in the 2008 NBA draft, playing sparingly in his first three seasons before deciding to head back to France to continue his professional basketball career. The Pelicans signed Alexis to a guaranteed contract at the league minimum salary which runs through the end of the 2014-15 season.
In his very first game with the team, Ajinça tallied 11 rebounds in just 17 minutes off the bench in New Orleans road loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on December 21st. This type of rebounding performance from a player who most casual Pelicans fans had never heard of had some wondering if he may be the guy to fill the void left by Robin Lopez. While those expectations were a little rushed for a guy who doesn’t have much of a history in the NBA, Ajinça is player who can succeed in the right situation, and has the potential for even more sustained success. A summary of his 2013-14 NBA season is detailed below.
Where He Started
In Ajinça’s 2012-13 season with Strasbourg of the Euro League (37 games), he averaged 15.3 points on 10 attempts per game to go along with 6.3 rebounds (2.2 offensive), 1.6 blocks, and 3.1 turnovers. In his 12 games with the team in 2013-14 before signing with the Pelicans, he averaged 13.9 points on 10.5 shots, 6.9 rebounds (2.0 offensive), 1.5 blocks, and 2.3 turnovers. For more about Alexis and where he came from, check out this Euro League Basketball video:
2013-14 Advanced Stats
A couple things to note here, with the first being the disparity between Ajinça’s effective field goal percentage and his true shooting percentage. The average center only makes about two thirds of his free throws, which leads to a TS% closer to eFG% than players that knock down a higher percentage of their FTs. However, Ajinça made 83.6% of his free throws in 2013-14, allowing him to reach a TS% of almost 59%, which ranked among the top 10 centers in the NBA this season.
2013-14 Season Strengths
Ajinça wasn’t elite, but he was a very solid rebounder on both ends of the court. He led the team in offensive rebound rate, and trailed only Anthony Davis in defensive rebound rate; the two were tight at the top in total rebound rate, and there was no particularly close third. The impact that Ajinça made on the Pelicans’ rebounding performance as a team cannot be overlooked, either. With Alexis on the court, New Orleans’ total rebound rate was 51.4%, which would have tied Detroit for 8th best in the NBA if maintained all season long. When he wasn’t in the game, that number dropped to 49.3%, which would have been 11th worst in the NBA this season. Whether it be from an individual or team perspective, Ajinça made a positive impact on the Pelicans as a rebounder.
Before continuing, here is Ajinça’s shot chart from the 2013-14 NBA season:
While this looks like a mixed bag overall, Ajinça shot better than the league average at every spot on the court from which he attempted more than two shots. He excels at looks as close to straight-on as possible, but he was slightly above the league average when taking short jumpers from both the left and right side. Remember, the “league average” is for all players, not just centers; while I don’t have the 2013-14 league average for his position in each zone, Alexis would trump that average by an even greater margin (except for maybe the 60.1% mark at the rim).
That being said, Ajinça should not be given the green light on these shots at any time, as they are still inefficient looks from an overarching perspective. What this proven ability to knock down mid-range jumpers does is force the defense to pay attention to him when he leaks away from the rim, thereby creating extra space at the rim for the rest of the offense to attack. He’s no Ryan Anderson, but Ajinça cannot be ignored when he looks to shoot outside of the restricted area, and that has its benefits.
Moving without the Ball
Per SynergySports, 60% of Ajinça’s possessions come as either the roll man in the pick and roll, a cut to the basket, or an offensive rebound, and he averages about 1.18 points per possession in those situations combined, an excellent number. He still commits his fair share of moving screens, but apart from those, he really is exceptional at knowing where the ball handlers on his team want him to be and creating passing lanes for them to get him the ball.
Ajinça faced post-ups on 47% of his match-up’s possessions, allowing just 0.79 points per possession, a very solid mark. What makes this number even more amazing is that he was able to hold opponents to this level of scoring output despite his extremely high foul rate mentioned above. Clearly, Alexis’ height and overall size alone give opponents enough trouble; if he can learn to become a more disciplined defender, he could really become a defensive stopper in the post.
2013-14 Season Weaknesses
If you guys thought Stiemsma fouled a lot, wait until you see the kind of foul rate Ajinça put up this season. Among players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game and played at least 50 games, Alexis is one of just four players in the past ten seasons to average over SEVEN fouls per-36 minutes. In a nutshell, he averaged a foul per five minutes of playing time this season, meaning that if he was asked to play 30 minutes per night and maintained that same foul rate, there is a 50/50 chance he would have fouled out before getting there. If Ajinça ever wants to have a shot at a larger role with this Pelicans teams (or any NBA team, for that matter), he has to cut down on his knack for fouling.
Carelessness with the Ball
About 10% of Ajinça’s offensive possessions were post-ups, in which he averaged a horrific 0.42 points per possession. Between 5-10% more of his possessions ended in a turnover coming from an errant or careless pass. Add to that his struggles as a spot-up shooter (7.8% of Alexis’ possessions came from spot-up jumpers, averaging 0.67 points per possession), and you have a player who makes far better offensive decisions without the ball than he does with it.
Defense away from the rim
This weakness isn’t as much of one as the numbers may indicate, but it is still something that Ajinça needs to work on. SynergySports would have you believe that Alexis faces spot-up shooters on over 25% of his match-up’s possessions, but after looking at the film, he is docked for giving up shots which he was in no way responsible for; he just happens to be the closest Pelicans defender to the shooter. Team defense is much more to blame than Ajinça’s defense in these instances, and that is another matter entirely. Nevertheless, Alexis still has room to improve his defense away from the restricted area, as his recovery speed to reach jump shooting big men is below average at best.
Alexis Ajinça’s size and shooting touch alone make him an intriguing player for the New Orleans Pelicans moving forward. Additionally, he has proven his ability to both know where he is supposed to be within the offense as well as hold his own defensively against some of the league’s most dominant big men in the post. Despite these advantages, Ajinça’s propensity to foul so frequently has limited his utility, and his knack for either forcing shots or turning the ball over when he gets the ball in the post or around the perimeter makes you shake your head at times. If Ajinça can learn to defend without fouling and the Pelicans can avoid looking to him to create offense (which shouldn’t be terribly difficult with a healthier roster), his offensive movement without the ball and defensive interior presence can be very valuable additions to this team going forward. If the high foul rate persists, though, he can be nothing more than another big body who can only be used for brief spurts.
The foul rate is a big issue. Will be interesting to see if that can be improved with a full offseason in the system and some work on conditioning. I thought AA's lack of conditioning played some part in his foul problems. On the upside, the numbers bear out what your eyes tell: Ajinca's got a nice stroke for a big man. He has to be guarded 15+ feet from the rim, which makes him ideal for our roster. I thought he was a below-par rebounder, but the numbers say otherwise. Interesting. He obviously has potential as a rim protector. I'm interested to see what he can do next year. I'm very comfortable going into the year with AA slotted in as a 15-20 minute player. He's one reason I agree that an upgrade at SF is more important than spending on a low-post defender.
With a fully healthy roster he would only need to play 15-20 minutes. The fouling shouldn't be a problem as long as they are not close to the penalty
His game improved when going up against the bigger Cs in the league.
On numerous occasions Monty has said he wants a center that can match up.
We already have him and utilizing him in that specific aspect will help the team.
He is also young and can improve, especially when on a team with a rising superstar big. His size/length/soft touch are a unique combination. I'd like to see him play more but..........the fouls.......yikes.
To me Ajinca seemed to play better in calendar year 2014, when he played over 20 minutes in a game, or both. That is encouraging. As is the fact that his skill set fits with the team's starters. I foresee him as a starting C for the Pelicans next year. I think that he will adjust the the way NBA fouls are called next season, and will benefit from attending training camp. If he does, he could be a more athletic Robin-Lopez-type C.
What makes you think next season will be the one he adjusts to NBA foul calls? This was his fourth season in the league and it has always been a major problem for him.
He doesn't need much of a reduction in fouls given he will likely play Lopez type minutes. Also, he will have more help on defense next year as injured players get healthy. So he shouldn't be put in so many bad positions on defense. Then there is going through training camp with a staff that can coach him about when to gamble on a foul and when not to.
But my big point is Ajinca will start and play 20-25 minutes at C for us next year. Do you disagree?