By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com
Over a memorable three-month span in 2004, Emeka Okafor seemed destined to be a name basketball fans would constantly be hearing about for years to come.
In March of 04, the chiseled, 6-foot-10, 255-pound center was the driving force behind the University of Connecticuts run to a national championship. Okafor was named the NCAA Tournaments Most Outstanding Player, after averaging 17.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.1 blocks in his final season with the Huskies. It had been one of the finest campaigns by any player in school history, but Okafor actually put up equally impressive numbers off the court, graduating from UConn in just three years, with a grade-point average of 3.8. Three months later, Okafor was the second overall selection in the 2004 NBA Draft, the first-ever pick in Charlotte Bobcats franchise history.
Add it all up, and the Houston native appeared to be the kind of cant-miss prospect who would quickly emerge as a perennial factor in the NBA. Although Okafor has been an above-average pro from Day 1 part of an exclusive group by averaging a double-double in his first five pro seasons he never imagined it would take him seven years to reach the NBA playoffs. When New Orleans clinched a playoff berth April 6 by defeating his hometown team, it marked the first time since his collegiate star turn that Okafor had advanced to a postseason.
Prior to 2010-11, the 28-year-old had been a victim of bad luck and poor timing. For example, during Okafors five seasons with the Bobcats, their best record was 35-47, but in the season after trading him, they improved to 44-38 in 2009-10 and reached the playoffs for the first (and only) time in team history. Meanwhile, Okafors New Orleans debut coincided with an injury-ravaged campaign, as the Hornets experienced their only non-playoff year since 2007.
Determined to do his part to end his individual postseason drought, Okafor improved considerably at both ends of the floor in Year 2 with the Hornets. His importance to New Orleans, particularly on defense and the backboards, was most evident when the team went just 3-7 without him on the floor in January and February.
Defensively, he covers up a lot of mistakes, Hornets coach Monty Williams said. If you watched his first game back (from a strained oblique injury), he was all over that rim. When he was out, those were easy layups, easy dunks (by opposing teams). He also gets us extra possessions with his tap-outs (on rebounds). He sets good screens to get people open. His value for us is something that everybody realized when he was out.
Following Okafors 10-game absence, the Hornets returned to their previous stinginess on defense, paving the way for a late-season push that resulted in a playoff berth, despite a season-ending knee injury to David West.
Its a good feeling, a smiling Okafor said of finally reaching the NBA postseason. Im looking forward to seeing what all of the fuss is about.
When I was in college, I took being in the NCAA Tournament for granted. At the beginning of the year, I said, OK were going to be in the tournament. The thought of not being in the tournament never even entered my mind, ever. But the situation was different (in the NBA), being in Charlotte and part of an expansion team. It was almost the complete opposite. You almost expected not to be in the playoffs.
Thats the luck of the draw, I guess. But Im here now. Im definitely going to make the most of it.
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