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Player Analysis of Alexis Ajinca

So I could pretend and say I was just waiting for the hype to die down, so that this article wasn't just "one of those Ajinca articles". I'm not going to; I meant to post this past weekend, but I've been busy. There was definitely hype, though, even if you've already forgot about it. Alexis Ajinca -- a throw-in for the Dampier trade, likely to be traded as soon as a team who wanted him could be found, and a fourth center as training camp started -- has impressed some people, and from what we hear, he's impressed the right people. No longer is he a trade chip to grab that lusted after 52nd pick. So what is the background of Ajinca?

Some Basic Facts

Ajinca was the 20th pick in the 2008 NBA draft by Charlotte, after playing for pro teams in France for a couple of years. He spent his time with both Charlotte and in the D-League, actually playing 31 games for the Bobcats in 08-09 (for 5.8 mpg). That number dropped to 5 games in 09-10, and apparently the front office had soured on him enough to basically give him away in a cap relief deal where they gained salary.

Ajinca's biggest strengths are two of his most obvious: he is only 22, and he is a legitimate 7'1". As the saying goes, you can't teach size. What you can teach, though, is a young player.

This isn't to say Ajinca needs tons and tons of coaching. He's young and needs experience, but he has a well-developed jump shot extending out to the international three point line (and maybe farther, though let's hold off on the "Dirk" labels), good footwork down low, and some offensive post moves. They need to improve, but the fundamentals are there.

Besides his size, he's also very athletic. If you lose a dollar bill on the top of the backboard, don't expect him to retrieve it, but he's got above average vertical. Where he really shines in his athleticism is in his speed and quickness. He's not a great face up player right now, but with some improvement on his jumper and some more overall refinement, he projects to become a offensive option. In the best case, he could be very similar to LaMarcus Aldridge.

Defensively, he's not all that bad either. Ajinca has shot blocking skill and ability, although like many young players, he fouls too much. For the six seasons I found the stats on (both NBA seasons, three Europe seasons and a season in the D-League), he has a nice 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes. Ajinca will have to learn to keep this in check.

He also really needs to bulk up to play at the professional level. A seven footer weighing 225 lbs is a problem, and effects many different aspects of his game. Though he's a good shot blocker, Ajinca can be pushed around in man-on-man defense, is only an average rebounder despite his athleticism, and has problems getting position down low. Certainly, its a fine line we're talking about here: Ajinca loses of lot of his effectiveness if the extra weight cuts his quickness down, but he needs to gain some if he expects to bang with those NBA bodies for 82 games. I think there is 10-15 pounds that can be packed on without losing too much of his athleticism, like his fellow 7'1" footer Tyson Chandler, whose weighs in at 235.

He's a very interesting prospect, mainly because he's not the usual cookie cutter 3rd string big men you see on a lot of teams: a seven footer with a ton of athleticism and nothing else (like Ryan Hollins back a couple years ago). Ajinca has skills, offensively and defensively, as well as the athleticism and size.

Ajinca's Fit with the Mavs

Yup, here's his problem. Brenden Haywood and Ian Mahinmi all were signed for multi-year contracts and its safe to say they will be here for a while. Tyson Chandler, though likely gone at the end of this year (and perhaps even sooner through a trade), has been playing extremely well early in camp and preseason, showing that he is completely healthy again. The center rotation is crowded, and with everything working as planned, Ajinca will not get many minutes.

However, things do not work out as planned. Mahinmi was suppose to be the energy third center that had six fouls to give, but its certainly possible that if Ajinca keeps impressing, that he could take that role from Mahinmi. Tyson Chandler has also had an injury history, and though we certainly hope for health, he's always a risk. Haywood missed some games last year, too. Heck, the center position in general requires players to take a beating. I have no proof to back me up, but big men seem to always be more liable to injury. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with their bodies, and the wear their put on their feet and legs, similar to what Yao Ming is going through on a smaller scale. Just off the top of my head, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bynum, Greg Oden, Chris Kaman, and the aforementioned Yao are good big men who have or had major injury issues. So if one of our top two centers goes down for any length of time, it'll be up to either Mahinmi or Ajinca to fill that role, or perhaps they both can be effective.

There is another way that Ajinca could potentially fit into the Mavericks rotation, as a backup 4. We have seen him playing there a few times this preseason, and personally I believe he could fill that spot for 5-8 minutes a night very effectively. With his jump shot range and athletic quickness, he keeps the floor spread on offense and isn't a statue on defense, while he uses his 7'1" size as a mismatch at the 4. His lack of physical strength could be masked easier at the 4, going up against weaker and smaller opponents. He's the type of player who'd I'd be interested to see what he could do on a switch against a guard. Could an Ajinca and Haywood, or an Ajinca and Chandler front court coexist? I think so. I would love to see two athletic seven footers guarding the rim and finishing around the basket like those two pairings could. I bet that would work for short periods of time, causing some pretty serious mismatches depending on the other team's front court.

Preseason Game Breakdown

Ajinca missed the first two games due to a slight hamstring issue, and did not play in the most recent game against the Bulls, despite strong play in the previous three.

@ PHX: 9 minutes, 6 points, 2/5 shooting, 2/4 FT, 3 boards, 1 offensive, an assist, a block, 2 fouls

vs CLE: 9 minutes, 2 points, 1/3 shooting, 3 boards, 1 block, 1 turnover, 2 fouls

@ DET: 19 minutes, 8 points, 4/7 shooting, 0/2 FT, 4 boards, 2 offensive, an assist, 3 blocks, 1 turnover, 2 fouls

No, its not like Alexis has just been dominating, but his play has been good, and I hope that we see one game with extended minutes from him before the preseason ends. He's showed he can use his mid-range, with five of his seven made field goals being jump shots. One of his two non-jumper makes showed off his athleticism, when he skied above the rim and put back a shot with one hand. He clearly needs to focus and shoot free throws better; his problem so far is nerves, not technique. Since he's relatively weak for his position, people will foul him and force him to finish through contact, and he has to be able to punish them for that at the line. The other big problem is 6 fouls in only 37 minutes. The fouls don't worry me, because I don't think he will ever get enough minutes in a game that fouls will keep him out, but the fact that he keeps sending to the line does. He needs to understand that not every shot can be blocked.

He's no doubt an aggressive defender, and not just when he's going for blocks. I remember watching the Phoenix game, and on a pick, he showed. However, he did not retreat, but rather, stayed in front of the guard, forcing him towards the sideline in somewhat of a trap with the other guard. The Suns player got the ball out, and after a couple swings of the ball, the pass was made inside to Ajinca's man, who was open, even though Ajinca was running to get back to him. He ended up picking up a foul on a shot block attempt (looked clean to me, for what its worth), and though I like the agressiveness, at some point Ajinca has to realize how much easier it is to pick up cheap fouls when you are out of position.

In Summary

At this point, its looking more and more likely that Ajinca may survive to play for the Mavericks this year, and not be traded as the rumors has it (though I would not rule out the possibility just yet). I wouldn't expect that big of a meaningful role, without injuries...but at the same time, injuries are bound to happen some. When they do, I expect Ajinca to step up and play some solid basketball for us. Beyond this year, who really knows? He certainly shows a lot of potential, and with his uniqueness, I would love to see him get a chance to develop and blossom into a legitimate NBA player. There's no doubt in my mind that it's possible...very possible.

Other Ajinca Info

This is Ajinca's Draft Express page, which gives a lot of great stats and some good information, though most of it is rather outdated.

Part 1 and part 2 of some footage of him playing 2v2 in the gym. It is edited to only show the highlights, so we don't know if he's missed a ton or actually making high percentages, but it shows solid form on his jumper and some good finishes around the rim. Its not exactly what I'd call exhilarating, but if my breakdown has you intrigued, I'd encourage you to watch a little.

A highlight video of him in the Euro leagues.