Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza experienced a challenging season in New Orleans last season, as the Hornets dealt away franchise point guard Chris Paul, were owned by the NBA until the league could find a buyer, and regressed from a playoff team to the worst team in the Western Conference.
The turmoil was taxing, but getting drilled on a regular basis — including a late-season trouncing handed out by the Washington Wizards — was even worse.
“They say losing builds character,” Okafor said. “We have enough character from last year.”
Okafor and Ariza are actually joining a team that finished with one fewer win than New Orleans, but the two players are encouraged about the direction of the Wizards, who finished the season winning eight of their final 10 games and have two solid pieces in point guard John Wall and big man Nene.
The Wizards dealt the disappointing Rashard Lewis and his $13.7 million buyout to the Hornets on Wednesday for Okafor and Ariza, and the duo was in Washington two days later discussing how they planned to assume leadership roles on a team that features seven players with less than three years of experience and has two picks in the upcoming NBA draft. Okafor even invoked the possibility of making “a playoff push” — something the Wizards haven’t done in more than four years – and Ariza didn’t dispute him.
“I know how hard he works on his body,” Ariza said with a smile about Okafor, as he playfully punched his teammate’s left biceps. “I know how hard he works on the court as well. I’ve played against Nene so many times the last few years, I know what he’s capable of. Watching this young team and the talent they already have here and trying to help them grow. I definitely think this can be a playoff team.”
New Orleans is headed in a different direction after landing the rights to take Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and deemed both Okafor and Ariza expendable. But the Wizards believe that the veteran, defensive-minded forwards will give them the versatility to play a variety of styles and help serve as an example for an impressionable group of youngsters.
Okafor, a 6-foot-10 center, won a championship at Connecticut as a junior, was selected second overall in 2004 and has averaged 12.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in a seven-year career with Charlotte and New Orleans. Ariza, a 6-8 small forward, is on his sixth team in eight years and won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009.
“They want us to come in, and I assume we would come in and play right away and start,” Okafor said. “They want us to take a veteran role, a veteran leadership kind of role. Just bring a sense of professionalism, show the young guys how to work and how to conduct themselves.”
The Wizards have drafted four forwards in the past two drafts, but Coach Randy Wittman said the acquisition of Okafor and Ariza wouldn’t have a negative affect on Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker or Chris Singleton.
“They are going to have every opportunity to play as they did this year,” Wittman said. Playing time “is going to be determined by the players. It shouldn’t affect their development at all.”
When asked if that meant there is an open competition for starting spots entering training camp, Wittman said, “Sure it is.”
Okafor said he looks forward to possibly forming a formable, physical front line with the 6-10 Nene and with seeing how his game will work with Wall. “Before I got traded to the Hornets, I’d seen Chris play,” he said. “Then when I got to play with him, I got to see how good he was. It’s a very similar situation, where I’ve seen John Wall play.”
Ariza had actually completed playing a pickup game in Los Angeles with Wall on the day that he found out they would be teammates. He came away encouraged by what lies ahead in Washington.
“I think he has unbelievable talent,” Ariza said of Wall. “I watched him play last year and then got to play with him a little in the summertime. I can’t believe that someone can move that fast with the basketball. That explosiveness, and from what I’ve seen, he’s also been knocking down his shots. He’s been working, I’ve noticed that. His jumper is looking really, really, really good, for those who haven’t seen him lately.”