The questions about why the Washington Wizards decided to add Emeka Okafor last summer were raised throughout his first three games with the team, but the answers have started to come in the past two — especially during an 89-85 loss Saturday in Indianapolis.
The 6-foot-10 Okafor was a physical presence on the defensive end, pushing the Indiana Pacers’ 7-2 all-star center, Roy Hibbert, out of his sweet spots and into more difficult shots.
Okafor was also a calming presence on the offensive end as he stepped out to hit foul-line jumpers and even made a baseline jumper that cut a Wizards deficit to two points with 36.4 seconds remaining.
He finished with a season-high 17 points, eight rebounds and extended to five his second-longest streak of games with a blocked shot to start a season.
“I’ve had games like that,” said Okafor, “and hopefully I continue to have more.”
The Wizards will need him to have more, with Nene out indefinitely with plantar fasciitis in his left foot and after committing to pay Okafor $28 million over the next two seasons. But Okafor’s first three games with the 0-5 Wizards were both perplexing and disappointing for him.
Okafor got limited minutes and was forced to watch his team fumble in fourth quarter — benched in favor of Earl Barron and Kevin Seraphin — despite being brought to town to expedite the growth of a young team.
“The process is still going,” he said. “Everybody is still trying to figure out exactly where we as individuals can be most effective and then as a team and knowing where your teammates are going to be as well.”
But in his past two games, he is averaging 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
“Been solid. Anchor to our defense,” Coach Randy Wittman said, adding that Okafor defended Hibbert better than anyone in the four years he’s been with Wizards. Hibbert missed 12 of 15 shots and scored just seven points. “We saw that, in terms of when we made the trade — and obviously, Nene is not part of this yet — of having beef to play teams like Indiana, the Dwight Howards, and the Bynums and stuff that weve never had in the past. We’ve really been taken advantage of with teams like that.”
If he was frustrated about losing, his poor play or his role early on, Okafor didn’t let it show as he took an approach that has carried him though his nine-year career.
“I know how it goes,” said Okafor, who drafted No. 2 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004. “I know that you can’t ever get too high or too low because if you get too high, you’ll get brought right back down, and if you get too low, you actually get even lower.”
Okafor had to develop that attitude the hard way in Charlotte, where he never won more than 35 games and endured a miserable, 18-win season in the Bobcats’ first year as an expansion team. He won rookie of the year, but had to experience five different losing streaks of six or more games.
“With Charlotte, it was a different type of experience, but one thing I learned there is patience and just if you work, good things will happen,” said Okafor, who was dealt to New Orleans for Tyson Chandler in the summer of 2009, one year after signing a five-year, $60 million extension. “It was completely different as far as it was a fledgling organization. Everybody was brand new. It was an expansion draft, so essentially a team full of people that nobody else wanted and then trying to break into a new marketplace. The whole dynamic was just different. We came in and the system is set up for you to lose.”
Okafor said fans have always been kind and respectful when he visits Charlotte, but he always marvels at how much has changed within the team and city.
“It’s like a shell: This place looks familiar, I might’ve been here one time, but it’s pretty different than what it was,” he said.
The Bobcats reverted back to resembling an expansion team last season, when they set an NBA record for futility and went 7-59. Though they would appear to be an ideal opponent for a Wizards team in search of its first victory, Okafor doesn’t want his teammates to think they’ll have an easy time when they face the Bobcats on Tuesday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“You can’t ever go into a game thinking that, ever, because every team is good and every team plays differently every night,” Okafor said. “You can’t take anybody lightly.”