2018 Pelicans Playoff Profile: Emeka Okafor

by Jim Eichenhofer

It took seven years, including four grueling years of injury rehabilitation. It took suiting up to play in the G League, before signing a 10-day contract with New Orleans in February. It took proving that – even at 35 years of age – he still belongs in the NBA and can contribute to a team.

Seven years after his only previous appearance, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA playoffs. He couldn’t be happier.

“It’s awesome,” Okafor said of being part of New Orleans’ postseason trip. “This is one of the scenarios I envisioned, being able to come back and be back in the playoffs, having a chance to compete for a championship.”

Though the 6-foot-10, 252-pound center did not get on the floor in Game 1 vs. Portland, Okafor was a valuable in-season pickup for the Pelicans, who started him 19 times during the regular season. Despite a modest minute allotment, he blocked multiple shots in seven different games, contributing in an area where it was needed after DeMarcus Cousins’ Jan. 26 season-ending injury.

“He helped fill a void we were missing, blocking shots, protecting the rim, when DeMarcus went down,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said.

Off the court, the No. 2 overall pick in the ’04 draft and three-year college hoops standout at UConn is a sounding board for a New Orleans team that unfortunately has dealt with more than its share of injuries in the recent past. Okafor’s patience and dedication to returning to the NBA are excellent examples for teammates who may share or seek advice on dealing with the frustration of being sidelined.

“There are so many people on this team who were injured or are injured, whatever it is,” said Holiday, whose first three seasons with New Orleans were negatively affected by injuries. “For him to be able to relate to us in that way – even though he’s a tad older than us – has been great. He’s just a good dude, somebody you can talk to about anything. What an incredible story he has, what he went through and how he was out of the league. It’s an awesome story.”

Okafor was one of the NBA’s most durable players during one stretch of his career, playing in all 82 games for three consecutive seasons, capped by “perfect attendance” for New Orleans in ’10-11. Unfortunately for the Houston native, aside from a playoff berth with the then-Hornets, he’s seen a lot of losing, particularly with the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. Okafor calls what the Pelicans accomplished over the final two months of ’17-18 the best team experience he’s had in the pros.

“I definitely think so. We were 17-8 after the All-Star break, that’s a very strong finish,” he said. “It’s the best finish for any of the teams I’ve been on.”

It’s uncertain from game to game how much of a role Okafor will fill for the Pelicans, partly depending on the frontcourt matchups presented by the opponent. One thing is certain, though: Regardless of how much he plays vs. Portland, the now 10-season NBA veteran is thankful to be part of this New Orleans playoff run.

“He appreciates this,” Holiday said. “He knows the struggle he went through, and what it is to play in the G League. You can definitely tell he is glad to be back. He doesn’t take this for granted. Just to have the type of mindset and presence around the team – which also doesn’t take this for granted, because of everything we’ve been through this season and prior seasons – it’s really been a good fit for all of us.”

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