Alexis Ajinca is coming back to New Orleans.
The Pelicans’ reserve center has agreed to a four-year, $20.2 million contract according to ESPN and confirmed by league sources, becoming the first unrestricted free agent to join the team this offseason.
“I’m very excited to say that I will be a Pelican for four more years!,” Ajinca tweeted. “I’m so happy to be back home…Let’s win a championship.”
Ajinca came to the Pelicans from Strasbourg of the Euro League midway through the 2013-14 season and remained in New Orleans last season, playing in 124 games and logging 38 starts over that span.
The 7-foot center proved to be an offensive asset for the Pelicans, who lacked a scoring punch at the position. He averaged 6.2 points in just 15 minutes per game, while shooting 55 percent from the field and pulling in 4.8 rebounds.
New Orleans is still working to re-sign fellow unrestricted free agent, starting center Omer Asik, according to several sources.
Ajinca was particularly useful against some of the larger opponents the Pelicans faced last year. His two biggest highlights during a pair of Eastern Conference wins - Jan. 18 at Toronto and Feb. 27 against Miami - when Ajinca led the Pelicans in scoring and helped make up for a sidelined Anthony Davis.
Those were just two of 20 games Ajinca scored in double-figures last season, with all but one of those coming in less than 27 minutes on the floor.
Despite his size, Ajinca proved capable of scoring from a variety of distances, converting 55 percent of shots taken between three and 10 feet and 50 percent between 10-to-16 feet, according to basketball-reference.com, thanks to a soft jump shot and a reliable turnaround hook.
It’s why multiple Pelicans sources said new coach Alvin Gentry was enamored with Ajinca’s offensive ability.
And that was enough for him to earn a nearly $4 million raise from the Pelicans, after playing on the NBA’s minimum salary the last two seasons.
Defensively, the native of France is still adjusting. He allowed opponents to shoot 52 percent from the field against him, according to NBA.com.
What was more concerning for previous coach Monty Williams was Ajincia’s tendency to get into foul trouble. He averaged 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes which was the worst rate among active players in the NBA.
Now, he’s locked in to a long-term contract that will represent a significant portion of the projected $67.1 million salary cap for 2015-16, but will shrink as the cap jumps nearly 30 percent next offseason.
The Pelicans’ didn’t stop at Ajinca in tinkering with its center position.
Third-stringer Jeff Withey’s $1.1 million qualifying offer was rescinded on Wednesday afternoon, thrusting him into unrestricted free agency.
The Pelicans extended the qualifying offer on Monday, only to do an about-face. News of the move leaked within hours of Ajinca announcing his new contract.
Withey was typically the last man off the bench for the Pelicans, playing in just 37 games last season after getting into 58 as a rookie on the injury –plagued 2013-14 team.
New Orleans can still sign him as an unrestricted free agent, it just no longer has the opportunity to match any offer he’s given by another team.