Pelicans shootaround update presented by HUB International: Emeka Okafor faces fellow top pick from 2004 draft

by Jim Eichenhofer

Fourteen years after they went 1-2 in the NBA draft, Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor will meet in the New Orleans paint tonight, with both experiencing renaissance seasons, just in completely different ways. Playing for his third different NBA team in three seasons, Howard, 32, is putting up his best scoring average (16.1 ppg) since 2013-14, while Okafor, 35, is back on an NBA roster for the first time since April ’13.

“(It shows) age ain’t nothing but a number,” Okafor said after Tuesday’s shootaround of the contributions by the ’04 lottery picks. “If you know how to play, you know to play.”

New Orleans (38-28) has benefited greatly from Okafor’s veteran know-how since his free-agent signing in early February. The 6-foot-10 center has joined Anthony Davis in making the Pelicans one of the more feared defensive teams around the rim lately, with Okafor frequently revving up his teammates and fans by rejecting dunks. In an era when dunking on someone often goes “viral” within minutes, Okafor said Tuesday that he’s always believed in going after shot attempts, regardless of the possible negative fallout.

“If you’re a shot-blocker, you accept the fact that you’re going to get caught,” he said of being dunked on by opponents. “It’s just the nature of the beast. If you’re up there blocking attempts, you’re going to end up on the other side of the (SportsCenter) Top 10. It’s just the way it is.

“People tend to remember getting dunked on more than blocks. For example, if I block someone five straight times, but they get me on that sixth (attempt), the sixth is what stands out. You can’t worry about being embarrassed. Your job is to protect the rim and play solid defense.”

Okafor has shown an uncanny ability to perfectly time his rejection attempts of dunks, part of why he’s averaging 1.6 blocks per game and a team-best 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes (Davis’ per-36 average is 2.4 blocks). Sometimes as importantly, those plays tend to rev up fans and his teammates.

“Everyone gets an energy boost,” he said. “So that’s a plus.”

Other notes from shootaround in Metairie:

Okafor on facing Howard, a traditional center who does most of his damage around the basket, which is starting to become a rarity in the NBA: “Strong body. He’s mobile. Great rebounder. He gets the ball on the block and can move some weight around.” …

It should be an interesting night of scoreboard-watching for Pelicans fans, because Tuesday’s 11-game NBA schedule features a whopping seven different contests (including New Orleans-Charlotte) that involve Western Conference teams in current spots 4 through 10. Partly dependent on Tuesday’s outcome vs. Charlotte (29-38, 6.5 games out of eighth in East), New Orleans will be in either fourth, fifth or sixth place at the end of the night, but the gap between the Pelicans and teams 7 through 10 has also narrowed. The Clippers, Utah, Denver and San Antonio are all exactly 1.5 games behind New Orleans and all are in action this evening. In fact, those four teams are all facing opponents Tuesday that sport losing records. Fourth-place Oklahoma City is matched up against a struggling opponent (at Atlanta), while sixth-place Minnesota has the toughest test on paper among the entire group, visiting Washington. …

Okafor on the Pelicans’ focus Tuesday: “Make sure we get a win. We have to stop the (two-game losing) skid. It’s the NBA. (The Hornets) have talent. We’ve got to make sure we stick to our game plan and do what we do.” Following Tuesday’s game vs. Charlotte, New Orleans will face three consecutive plus-.500 opponents, including San Antonio, Houston and Boston.