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Pelicans Use Unique Strategy With International Free Agents

With key players out with injury, the Pelicans sought the European leagues for help.

It’s hard enough for a player to enter the NBA just once. It’s next to impossible to enter the league a second time — to earn back an NBA roster spot after a player has migrated/been exiled to one of the world’s less competitive international leagues.

Examples of these types of “second-time” NBA players are few and far between. After spending the previous season in China, Shawne Williams managed to make periodic contributions to this year’s Los Angeles Lakers. Rasual Butler spent all of 2012-13 toiling in the D-League and earned himself a spot at the end of the Indiana Pacers’ bench this season. That’s just about everybody the whole league ’round who gained re-entry in 2013-14. Except in New Orleans.

The Pelicans were wrought with long-term injuries this season — Jrue Holiday was only healthy for 34 games, Jason Smith for 31, Ryan Anderson for just 22. Given the lemons that the 2013-14 season gave their team, the Pelicans did a commendable job making lemonade as an organization with their in-season scouting of international leagues. The Pelicans signed two players who had been playing Europe to two-year minimum contracts, and both of them quickly adapted into productive rotation players in New Orleans:

1. Alexis Ajinça 

  • Most Recent team: Strasbourg IG of the French LNB Pro A – 24.7 MPG / 15.2 PPG / 6.2 RPG / 1.2 BPG
  • Most Recent NBA team: Toronto Raptors, January-June 2011 – 11.0 MPG / 4.7 PPG / 2.5 RPG / 0.5 BPG
  • 2013-14 with New Orleans: 17.0 MPG / 5.8 PPG / 4.9 RPG / 0.8 BPG

During his first tenure in the NBA, from 2008-2011, Ajinça and his preposterously thin legs could not find a way into the rotations of the Charlotte Bobcats, Dallas Mavericks, or Toronto Raptors. After nearly three full seasons playing in his native France, Ajinça was finally ready to answer the call from New Orleans in late December. In his 56 games with the Pelicans, 30 of which he started, Ajinça not only set career-bests in most categories — he surpassed his previous career totals. After a combined 552 minutes and 223 points in his first NBA stint, Ajinça totaled 951 minutes and 328 points this season.

Ajinça’s game is predicated on finesse. He has a very smooth and fluid jump shot that he sunk with outstanding accuracy — 53.1 percent on shots taken between 16 feet and the three-point line. He has even greater skill working within an offense as a cutter or roller, frequently finding holes in the defense and shooting for an even greater percentage. Ajinça’s shot carries over to the free-throw line, where he shot a sterling 83 percent.

However, Ajinça’s style might rely too much on finesse for the NBA game: on pick-and-rolls he rarely actually makes contact with opposing players when he actually sets the pick. Clearly Ajinça would be a greater asset to his team if he could free up his teammates handling the ball, instead of just freeing himself as he already does. His season totals of 40 assists and 63 turnovers are clearly an area of improvement. Regardless, I would not be surprised if Ajinça saw a similar amount of minutes per game that neared his 17.0 average this year — although he may not receive as many starts.

2. Luke Babbitt 

  • Most recent team: BC Nizhny Novgorod of the Russian VTB United League – 18.3 MPG / 13.2 PPG / 3.6 RPG / 57.4 3P%
  • Most recent NBA team: 2012-13 with Portland Trailblazers – 11.8 MPG / 3.9 PPG / 2.2 RPG / 34.8 3P%
  • 2013-14 with New Orleans: 17.5 MPG / 6.3 PPG / 3.2 RPG / 37.9 3P%

Babbitt was one of the culprits of last year’s much-maligned Trailblazers bench unit, registering only a 9.3 PER in 2012-13. As a result, Babbitt found himself in Russia when this year’s NBA season tipped off, spending about half the season there before arriving in New Orleans in February.

Babbitt plays with excellent energy, and does a great job moving off the ball, finding himself openings for his frequent three-point shots (7.2 every 36 minutes). Opponents, perhaps not imposed by Babbitt’s so-far thin NBA resume, would frequently forget about Babbitt in the rush of traffic, and he would find ways to make them pay. Babbitt looks like an All-Star in his frequent appearances in the infamous James Harden, Defensive Juggernaut video. Ideally, Babbitt’s percentage on his two-point shots (40.7 percent) would be far larger than his shooting percentage by three-point shots (37.9).

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The Pelicans have no picks in the 2014 Draft — their 10th-overall pick now belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers, sent over as part of the trade that earned them Jrue Holiday. With no elite young talent on its way, and with inefficient, high-volume shooters like Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon taking up significant amounts of cap space, the Pelicans would do well to scout domestic players as well as they scout players in international leagues.

Statistics via RealGM.com and Basketball-Reference.com