Washington Wizards lose two big men in one day

September 18, 2013

(Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

The Washington Wizards spent an entire offseason upgrading and increasing their depth with perimeter talent but remained thin and relatively inexperienced in the front court, with the exception of starters Emeka Okafor and Nene.

But with training camp set to start Sept. 28, the Wizards’ most vulnerable area is now much weaker after the team announced Wednesday that Okafor and reserve forward Chris Singleton would both miss significant time because of injuries.

Okafor will be out indefinitely after an MRI revealed a herniated disk in his neck, and the team announced that Singleton is expected to miss six to eight weeks after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot. Singleton sustained his injury during a voluntary workout on Tuesday at Verizon Center. Okafor said he began experiencing discomfort in his neck while playing pickup basketball in New York but didn’t believe it was anything more than “stiffness.”

“I attacked this offseason with the same mindset and ferocity that I attack every offseason, and I learned that I’d be missing some time I was disappointed,” Okafor said during a conference call. “I’m an athlete. I want to play. I want to play all the time. I don’t like missing games. I try to play as many as I can. I want to be out there with my teammates and the fact that I can’t right away, bothers me.”

The loss of Okafor is most damaging to the Wizards, with the veteran center leading the team in rebounding (8.8) and games played (79) last season. With his rugged and tenacious play, Okafor helped spearhead a defensive unit that ranked among the league’s best. He was also respected within the locker room for his workmanlike attitude and steadying presence.

Okafor also held a reputation for being diligent and regimented as it relates to his physical health. He maintained a strict stretching routine after games and practices that led to him being one of the last players to leave the arena.

“Emeka’s professionalism and dedication to taking care of his body are among the best I have ever seen during my time in this league as a player, coach and executive and I know that he will be diligent in his efforts to return to the court as soon as possible,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement.

Okafor has already begun rehabilitation but doesn’t believe that he will need surgery. “Everyone is pretty optimistic that things should resolve with physical therapy,” Okafor said. “I feel the onset is the worst of it. Now things are getting better day by day. I’m not in any serious discomfort, just going through the proper steps to make sure it heals properly.”

When asked about possibly missing the entire season, Okafor responded, “I’m positive I’ll make it back.” But he did not offer a timetable for his return.

Okafor, 30, is the Wizards’ highest paid player, and is slated to earn $14.5 million in the final year of his deal. “Worse things have happened to better people. I just have to get right and get back,” Okafor said. “It’s a slight bump in the road. But nothing that I don’t think I can recover from.”

With Okafor down, the Wizards will likely have to move Nene to center and pair him with either Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely or veteran Al Harrington. Seraphin was the primary backup to both Okafor and Nene last season and declined playing for the French national team to train primarily in Washington this summer.

“I expect people to pick up the slack,” Okafor said. “I think that the last half of the season, we ended on a positive note and we started playing well. Had some additions that strengthened up our roster and guys had a summer to mature for when the season settles in and I think everything will be just fine.”

Okafor added that the Wizards are “definitely” built to snap the franchise’s five-year postseason drought. “With the talent that we have on the team. I don’t see anything less than a playoff team,” he said.

Singleton’s injury also came at an inopportune time as he enters a critical season as it relates to his future with the organization. The 6-foot-8 Singleton was already in a difficult position; he was attempting to earn a spot in Coach Randy Wittman’s regular rotation while convincing the Wizards to pick up his option worth about $2.5 million for the 2014-15 season.

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