After four-plus years away, Emeka Okafor back in NBA and part of another lengthy New Orleans winning streak

by Jim Eichenhofer

There were plenty of basketball fans, media members, coaches and players who believed he’d already retired, which seemed like a reasonable assumption considering it was nearly a half-decade since they’d seen him on an NBA court. That helps explain why as Emeka Okafor makes his way around the league these days, a common response to him suiting up for the New Orleans Pelicans has been one of significant surprise, but also appreciation for the work he put in to revive his career.

“I’ve really been touched and moved by people’s reactions, and how positive the reception has been, to be honest,” said the 35-year-old, who most recently played in the NBA for Washington in 2013, before a herniated disc injury in his neck sidelined him. “In my mind, it was more like, ‘OK, this is my goal (to return to the NBA). I think it’s achievable. If I put my mind to it, I think I can do it.’ ”

Okafor sounds matter-of-fact as he describes his process of coming back to the league, but realistically, it is virtually unprecedented. Few players in NBA history have four-season gaps between stints in the league, but it took Okafor that long to feel confident physically in making an attempt to get back to this level. He did not expect it to be in his mid-30s by the time he was on an NBA roster again.

“I didn’t know how hard it would be,” said Okafor, who is not only contributing for New Orleans (35-26), but has started six consecutive games. “To be honest, it was a lot more difficult than I expected, but I’m here. Once I started, I thought I would be back in maybe three months. But when I learned the nature of the injury and what was going on, I thought it would be a two-year process. Then it became (four years).”

Okafor, who also started at center for New Orleans during the team’s last playoff win – Game 4 of the first round in 2011 vs. the Lakers – returned to a franchise that had drastically changed. The NBA itself has also undergone some dramatic alterations, particularly for traditional bigs like Okafor who previously never needed to venture far from the basket on either end of the floor.

“In terms of where the game was when I left compared to now, it is starkly different,” the No. 2 overall pick of the 2004 draft said. “The way teams play, the way teams operate business-wise, there are new facilities popping up everywhere, a couple new (arenas) popping up.

“But New Orleans is the same in some ways, different in others since the last time I was here. The players are all different. The coaching staff is different. Training staff is different. Equipment guys are the same. The GM is the same. Press guys are the same, with a couple additions. Obviously, the city’s the same. (Overall) it’s different, but also familiar.”

Okafor’s rebounding, defense and effective screen-setting have been familiar sights to avid New Orleans basketball fans, who remember the player nearly averaging a double-double for the ’11 playoff squad. Okafor averaged 10.3 points and 9.5 rebounds for the then-Hornets, who reeled off a franchise-record 10 consecutive victories in January. The new version of Okafor is logging much more limited minutes (14.9 per game) and therefore won’t match that type of production (4.5 points, 5.4 rebounds in eight games), but his presence he’s been instrumental during another lengthy New Orleans winning streak. With Okafor starting at center, it’s helped free up Anthony Davis defensively during an MVP-level stretch. Davis won the Western Conference’s Player of the Month award for February, putting up historic numbers.

“He’s been really, really fun to have here,” Pelicans third-year head coach Alvin Gentry said of Okafor. “I think our guys have a lot of respect for him. The coaches have a lot of respect for him, the way he came in and the work ethic he has. He’s a total team guy who’s been a welcome addition. He’s played well. Just his presence on the court has been really good for us.”

Okafor, who initially signed with New Orleans last month on a 10-day contract, has been visibly grateful since Day 1 for the opportunity to simply be in the NBA. While many traditional centers have been phased out of the league in recent years, he was able to get back in, partly due to his above-average mobility and athleticism. In just 119 total minutes so far, he’s already produced multiple highlight-reel blocks of dunk attempts (average of 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes; elite swatter Davis’ average is 2.1). On offense, he rarely attempts shots from beyond the mid-range area, focusing instead on what he does well.

“Bigs are always going to be around, it’s just a matter of how they’re used,” Okafor said, when asked how the NBA’s fast-paced, three-point-heavy game affects today’s centers. “Certain styles are cyclical. Eventually post play will make its way back in at some point. I just think at this particular time, bigs are shooting outside and everybody’s spacing the floor. But if you can do the basics – rebound, finish, run, play defense – you have a spot.”

Given the path Okafor traveled to return to the NBA, few players who are more appreciative of being able to land that spot.

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