Wizards’ Emeka Okafor thriving while starting alongside Nene

January 27, 2013

Emeka Okafor had fallen on his backside and looked up at Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, confused by his 38-second display of overly physical play on Saturday night at Verizon Center. After swinging his arm and knocking down Okafor to earn a flagrant foul on one end of the court, Boozer threw his left shoulder into Okafor’s face for a personal foul and then tossed the Washington Wizards center to the ground to collect a technical foul on the other.

Okafor shot up to confront Boozer but Nene was already storming toward Boozer, shouting, pointing and needing to be restrained by Bulls center Joakim Noah. At 6 feet 10 and 255 pounds, Okafor is certainly capable of taking care of himself, but Nene had his back.

In 20 games since Nene was inserted into the starting lineup alongside Okafor, the Wizards’ big-man tandem has consistently supported one another in ways that are both symbolic and substantive, providing sturdy, dependable production. In the Wizards’ 86-73 victory over the Bulls, Okafor and Nene combined for 31 points and 22 rebounds and helped limit Noah and Boozer to a combined 15 points.

“They’ve been tremendous. Emeka’s been rebounding his butt off. Nene, too. They’ve both been putting the ball in the basket,” rookie Bradley Beal said. “We need that. With them playing at a high level, it just opens everything up for the team.”

And Nene has opened up the game for Okafor, who has recorded all nine of his double-doubles this season since Dec. 22, when Nene was inserted into the starting lineup.

Okafor is averaging 10.1 points on 50.6 percent shooting with 11.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks since Coach Randy Wittman decided Nene would best help the Wizards as a starter, even though his playing time remains restricted as he recovers from plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

“That’s obviously been a lot of pressure off him, having Nene in the lineup. He’s been playing phenomenal; rebounding, scoring, defensively, he’s been unbelievable,” A.J. Price said of Okafor, a fellow Connecticut alum. “The biggest thing is, they’ve been working together.”

When the Wizards acquired Okafor from New Orleans last June, neither he nor Nene knew if they could have success with an up-tempo offense, or how they would share defensive duties. Wittman said he “never had any question” about how they would work out and the transition has practically been seamless for the Wizards’ two highest-paid players, with Nene’s finesse scoring and playmaking serving as a complement to Okafor’s physicality and grit.

“Nene’s been in the league, what is it, 11 years now? So whenever you have another player, especially a big who has been out there, we’ve seen all types of situations,” Okafor said. “We can make reads off each other without even saying anything. Whenever you have players who know a little more about the game and do different things, you approach the game differently. So having Nene out there just allows our dynamic to be a little different. I think it works just fine.”

Okafor and Nene routinely alternated defending Noah and Boozer on Saturday, keeping them off-balance with their differing styles. Nene has also adjusted to Okafor, who relies more on instinct and feel than shouting and talking.

“I try to communicate with him. I try to talk to him a lot. I just hope he talk to me back,” Nene said with a laugh.

“He hardly talks,” Beal said of Okafor. “I talk more than he does.”

Before finding comfort next to Nene in the starting lineup, Okafor averaged just 6.7 points and 5.5 rebounds. Wittman would often go with Kevin Seraphin or even Earl Barron late in games, leaving Okafor unsettled about his role.

“Early in the year, it was hard for me to find a rhythm, because I didn’t know if I was coming in or coming out,” Okafor said. “Now I have a better idea of when I’m in and I can focus on that. My mind-set is, if I’m on the court, I’m doing something. Whether it’s grabbing rebounds, blocking, stealing, recovering for somebody. Whatever it takes to contribute.”

After missing 39 games with a left knee injury last season, Okafor is the only Wizard to play in every game this season and his teammates marvel at his meticulous dedication to working hard in practice and in the weight room. Okafor is often the last player to leave the training room and shower after games, holding to firm to a regimen that has worked for his nine years in the league.

“He’s been incredible. He got one rebound towards the end there [against Chicago], where he we went up with two hands and I didn’t know if he was coming down,” Wittman said. “He’s been consistent and an anchor from a defensive standpoint. And he’s been scoring on the low post. He’s been playing at a very consistent level for us, which is one of the reasons why we’re playing well.”

As for the pairing between Okafor and Nene, Wittman said, “I think it speaks for itself.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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