After trading for Nene last March, the Washington Wizards quickly learned the value of having an experienced player who can make significant contributions on the court. The younger players benefited from Nene’s basketball acumen, listened to his advice, elevated their games by competing against him in practice — and got to sip some late-season success.
The Nene effect was one of the primary reasons that the Wizards acquired Emeka Okafor from New Orleans in a pre-draft trade. They understood that Okafor gives them an underrated big man capable of forming a physical, rebounding, defensive-minded tandem with Nene and also filling in for him if he’s forced to sit because of injury.
Okafor, who led Connecticut to national championship in college before becoming the face of the Charlotte Bobcats for six seasons, also can handle leadership responsibilities. Asked on media day where the Wizards can look for guidance with both John Wall and Nene out during training camp because of injuries, Okafor smiled, pointed at his chest and said, “That would be me, I guess.”
Okafor has grown accustomed to playing that role since the then-expansion Bobcats selected him second overall in 2004. Back then, Okafor was very much like Wall as a rookie two years ago, asked to direct grown men before he knew where his feet should take him. His face was on billboards and posters; he made promotional appearances. And he learned the hard way that his words sometimes carried consequences, such as the time he told a group of school children that he planned to dunk on Shaquille O’Neal.
“Time is the best teacher,” said Okafor, now with a lower profile and fewer off-court responsibilities on his third team in Washington. “It takes time because when you’re young, you don’t know. You hear it; you don’t quite process it. You kind of nod your head and go. I know, because I was there. Now that I’m older, I see. I see young guys making those mistakes and I’m like, ‘Oh, been there. Let’s fix this.’ ”
As the Wizards prepare to play their preseason opener Sunday against his former team, Okafor has the know-how to support his position. He is also a grown man — one of three players on the roster over 30 — and willingly passes along his wisdom to a collection of players still relatively short on experience in life and basketball.
Okafor has been one of the more vocal players through the first week of practice, pulling players aside, shouting instructions and calling out plays and screens on defense.
“He’s just the ultimate leader, on and off the court,” said point guard A.J. Price, a fellow Connecticut alum. “He shows guys how to be professional.”
Okafor also has provided the hustle and aggressiveness that the Wizards had hoped to receive when they traded for him. During a recent scrimmage, Okafor kept Kevin Seraphin from getting the ball inside, deflected passes and altered shots, allowing his teammates to apply more pressure on the ball.
“He brings a defensive intensity that nobody that I’ve played with besides Dwight [Howard] can bring,” said Trevor Ariza, who played with Okafor the previous two seasons in New Orleans. “If the ball goes anywhere in the paint he’s going to somehow affect the ball. He’s going to make the guy change his shot, tip the ball out, get rebounds, block shots. I think that part of his game stands out the most, but offensively he’s been working hard and he can bring some more post presence inside.”
At 6 feet 10, Okafor is a somewhat undersize center, and he probably will alternate at power forward, based on matchups, whenever Nene returns from plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Coach Randy Wittman said he expects Okafor to be “an anchor defensively” but couldn’t be certain how he will mesh with Nene until the Brazilian big man comes back. Trevor Booker
Seeing Okafor running, jumping and defending have been encouraging sights for the Wizards, after he played just 27 games because of a left knee injury last season. Limited to mostly non-basketball related activities since February, Okafor said he has experienced no problems with his knee as the team endures two-a-day practices.
“Knee’s holding up fine. Everything’s good,” he said. “I’m just feeling good. Having a good start is very important. Right now it’s just getting my basketball senses back.”
Okafor is eager to return to the playoffs and believes the Wizards have the talent to get there. He plans to assist with the experience part.
“I’ve been a part of young teams throughout my whole career, so I have the advantage of knowing what to look for knowing what’s going to happen down the road,” Okafor said. “I’m looking for certain things and hopefully I can address it and problems that usually plague young teams won’t plague us. It’s okay to make mistakes, no one’s perfect, it’s human to make mistakes. That’s how you really learn.”