Workouts key period for Pelicans’ Ajinca, Babbitt, Jackson

For Alexis Ajinca and Luke Babbitt, who played with the New Orleans Pelicans last season, the transformation begins as they hope to remain with the team in bigger roles.

For Pierre Jackson, an NBA Development League star last season who badly wanted to be with the Pelicans, his journey on the way to hopefully proving himself also begins.

The Pelicans have begun their annual voluntary player development workouts in which the players follow individual programs outlined by the coaching staff to shore up weaknesses and improve overall. Coach Monty Williams said seven or eight players are participating.

“We sit down with them at the end of the season and give them a plan of what we feel they need to work on and how they’re going to do it,” Williams said.

For Ajinca, Babbitt and Jackson, this one-month period is an important first step to summer league play in Las Vegas, where they are looking to impress and go from there. It could play a big part in their NBA futures.

It starts with work on their bodies, improving physically for one-on-one battles, and, of course, encompasses skills development. Ajinca, a slender 7-foot-2 center who came to the Pelicans in January from France, said last season he knows this could be his last NBA opportunity. Ajinca, who has had stints with two other NBA teams, desperately wants to stick and validate himself as a player.

“So far, I’m working on trying to get bigger,” Ajinca said. “That’s what I’ve been working on for the most part. And drills — catching the ball and doing post moves.”

A 6-8 power forward, Babbitt’s goal is to get more conditioned and continue on his path to versatility.

“I’m working hard on athleticism, strength, improving my body,” he said. “I want to improve on making plays off the dribble and be able to score a little more efficiently.”

At his height, he also needs to be able to play small forward, and that means the challenge of playing better defense. His workouts are with that in mind, he said.

“It’s a matter of being able to guard 3s and keep guys in front of me that are real athletic,” said Babbitt, who also came to the Pelicans in January. “It’s an athletic position, but having a shooter out there at the 3 can be good, too.”

Last season, Jackson, a second-round draft pick, came to the Pelicans in the Jrue Holiday trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He spent most of the season in the NBA Development League, and at 5-8 averaged a league-high 29.1 points per game and also 6.2 assists. This season, he is looking to make the Pelicans roster.

Last year, he had to wait until the trade was approved by the NBA, which gave him a late start in summer league play, during which he struggled.

“This summer is huge for me, big for my family and I want to make the best of it,” he said.

He’s using the Pelicans’ development program to get in excellent condition, with a better summer league run imperative. However, he’s also getting more acclimated to what he hopes will be his new surrounding.

“It feels amazing being able to finally be a part of an NBA organization, being out here working out, getting better, meeting some of the guys,” said Jackson, whose rights the Pelicans have until training camp ends in October. “I’m out here to show my face and just be a part of something. I want to make the best of it.”

Jackson said the Pelicans have not made any promises to him concerning making the team and getting a contract.

None have been made about a bigger role to Ajinca, either. However, the Pelicans have a gaping hole at center, with Greg Stiemsma not working out last year after he was brought in to be the starter and Jason Smith coming off knee surgery.

“It’s a great opportunity, and I need to catch it,” he said. “That’s why I’m here early, because I want to make sure I have every advantage on my side.”

Ajinca had moments where he played well but often found himself in foul trouble. He said not being in NBA shape was a big reason.

“I think he’s going to be a much stronger player, in better condition,” Williams said. “He’s going to be more comfortable playing. We’re just going to see how it plays out.”