BALTIMORE — When Alexis Ajinca joined the Pelicans in December, he found himself in an unusual position. He didn’t just arrive in New Orleans from a different team, but from an entirely different league.
After three seasons in the NBA, Ajinca returned to his native France for two and a half years to regain his footing. His eye, though, was still fixed on the United States and a return to the league he debuted in as a 20-year-old. Midway through last season, the Pelicans granted him an opportunity to return.
“He came over last year, and a lot of stuff was thrown at him,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said before his team’s penultimate preseason game against the Wizards on Monday. “He’s had a chance to digest it all in the summer time.”
There were some growing pains, and that was to be expected. But after half a season back in the United States and a full offseason as part of an NBA roster invested in his future, Ajinca finds himself firmly ingrained in New Orleans’ plans for the 2014-15 season.
Omer Asik will get the bulk of the playing time at center after joining the team in a July trade. Behind him is a competition between Ajinca and second-year center Jeff Withey. Since Ajinca returned from a hamstring injury three games into the preseason, though, he has seized the role of backup center, playing more minutes than Withey in each of the past three games.
“I’m almost 100 percent,” Ajinca said. “I’m still in the training room getting better every day, and I’ll hopefully be 100 percent by the season.”
During New Orleans’ most recent game — a 120-86 win against the Thunder — Ajinca scored six points, grabbed four rebounds and blocked three shots. Withey played only four minutes and has played six total during the Pelicans’ past three games.
It’s been a frustrating step back for Withey after his strong finish the last season. After earning sporadic NBA playing time for the first four months of his career, Withey found a solidified role toward the end of February. He made all four of his starts during his final 29 games and averaged more than a block per game in 14.7 minutes.
And as Withey has regressed, Ajinca has built off his strong finish. He took the offseason to gain a better grasp of the Pelicans’ system and his ability to score outside the paint has become an effective complement to Asik’s plodding post presence while his 7-foot-2 frame makes him a still effective defender.
“That’s a plus,” Ajinca said. “I think that’s going to be a good thing for us the whole season.”
This could all leave Withey searching for playing time even after a promising rookie campaign. Williams says he hasn’t considered sending Withey to the D-League yet — he wants to see how the final two games of the preseason go — but it could be a logical option for a 24-year-old who became a solid piece with consistent minutes.
However, he had a chance at the start of the preseason, playing 34 minutes during the first two games with Ajinca sidelined. It was a missed opportunity, as the center has only blocked one shot and grabbed 12 total rebounds in four preseason games. His value rests on his ability to stylistically mirror, Asik and right now his lack production is keeping him off the court.
“He’s just got to play better,” Williams said. “He knows he’s got to rebound and defend — that’s his calling card.”