Emeka Okafor looks forward to seeing what Pelicans can accomplish next season

by Jim Eichenhofer

New Orleans center Emeka Okafor achieved the rarest of professional basketball feats in February, returning to the NBA after being out of the league for four full seasons. Now the 35-year-old hopes to extend his second stint in the world’s elite hoops circuit, entering 2018-19 under contract with the Pelicans, but on a non-guaranteed deal.

Okafor appeared in 26 regular season games and started next to Anthony Davis 19 times in the frontcourt, with New Orleans going 13-6 in Okafor’s starts, including key Western Conference victories over San Antonio and the Clippers. He appeared in just one playoff game, but played a significant role in the Pelicans even reaching the postseason, along with compiling their most wins (48) since 2008-09.

At a Friday community event across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans in nearby Gretna, the UConn product noted that he’s already been back in the Ochsner Sports Performance Center to work out, beginning preparations for next season. Based on the particulars of his contract for ’18-19, he’s not technically a summer free agent and therefore won’t be listed next to the likes of Pelicans teammates DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Ian Clark, but his roster status potentially will be dependent on offseason transactions and fall training camp.

“I’m here now, so we’ll see,” Okafor said. “I enjoy New Orleans, but I understand things are a business. I’m ready to play and enjoyed being a Pelican. I look forward to being here next year.”

Last season was actually Okafor’s second stint with NOLA’s NBA franchise, as he became the only player to make a postseason appearance for both the Hornets and Pelicans (seven years apart). He was the team’s starting center in ’11 when New Orleans dropped a first-round series to the Lakers in six games. The Houston native has thoroughly enjoyed his time in the Crescent City during separate portions of this decade.

“New Orleans is the most unique place in the United States,” he said. “Aside from New York (City), New Orleans is its own separate place, in terms of not only cultural, but the influence it has from (Americans), French, Vietnamese, Cajun, everything. And the people here are very about New Orleans. I’m a big foodie – I love the food here. I tell people you can’t really replicate the food outside New Orleans, because the culture’s in the food here. There is a certain pride people take that is infused in the food. I’ve really had a great time interacting with the fans, and everybody has been kind and cool.”

Okafor is looking forward to getting back on the floor with his Pelicans teammates; several players noted that the elder statesmen’s presence had a calming effect in just a three-month span.

“I mentioned it to other teammates, how close the team is and how everybody likes each other’s presence,” Okafor said of the importance of chemistry to team success. “It’s just an overall good vibe.”


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