Emeka Okafor hasn’t appeared in an NBA game since Feb. 10, but that eight month waiting period is about to end when the Wizards play their only home preseason game – and he makes his debut with a new team – on Thursday against the New York Knicks.
“It’s been a long time,” Okafor said after Wednesday’s practice. “I mean, just getting back into the flow. Practice is one thing, games are a completely different thing.”
Okafor missed the final 39 games of last season in New Orleans with a left knee injury, but after taking a few months off, he spent the offseason focusing on his durability and strengthening areas of weakness. He described the experience of ending last season in street clothes as “awkward, man. Sitting out is never fun. You always feel [like the] odd man out. Actions going on … you’re just stagnant. It’s not a very good feeling at all.”
Randy Wittman decided to rest Okafor during the Wizards’ 100-88 loss in Charlotte, but he has participated in every practice since training camp started last week.
Wittman said Okafor hasn’t experienced any problems with his knee or elsewhere during practice: “He looks fine. He’s been fine all summer and he’s been full bore ever since we got a hold of him.”
Okafor is diligent when it comes to managing his body and has tried to make sure that he doesn’t push himself too hard and risk suffering a more serious injury down the road.
“Early in the summer I was feeling very good,” he said. “I knew that the season was Part II of the rehab. Just make sure I used the month of October to properly get myself back into NBA shape. Just go at it at a steady pace.”
While observing the Wizards’ first game, Okafor noticed that his teammates were still trying to figure each other out. “First game looked like a first game. It was a bit sloppy,” Okafor said. “Transition killed us. It juts looked like some guys trying to get it together. But again, its the first game so, nothing to be taken too seriously, I mean, you know what I mean. Not the end of the world.”
When asked what Wizards fans should expect to see when they step into the arena, Okafor replied, “Just a team working hard, steady improvement. My first game back and the team’s second game, so I guess that’s the statement.”
He asked for fans to be patient as the new pieces come together, and the players attempt to establish chemistry with three key pieces out with injury – John Wall, Nene and Trevor Booker.
“It’s been improvements, just curious to see game-by-game the improvement. Its going to be a little bit of ebb and flow. All moving in the right direction so far,” he said. “This whole month has been an evaluation process, so its going to be fine tuning every game, different players, different rotations … time for everybody to get and figure it out.”
The Wizards held their first practice at Verizon Center, where players were greeted with a new locker room, darker wood and new logos surrounding the entrance. Okafor admitted that it would be different calling the arena home after playing so many games as a visitor while in college at Connecticut and in the NBA with Charlotte and New Orleans.
“I still call it MCI Center from time to time,” Okafor said with a laugh. “I’ve always liked this arena, have felt comfortable, I guess. For me, playing here in college, it just felt good.”