Emeka Okafor has appeared in just four games, but barring some unexpected surprise name entering the buyout arena like Brook Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans should be ready to make a commitment to the nine-year veteran for at least the rest of this season.
By now you know the story: Okafor’s previous appearance in the NBA came back during the 2012-13 campaign, as a herniated disc in his neck kept him out of the league for over four seasons. He was cleared to sustain the rigors of competition last May, but teams were hesitant to take a chance on a 34-year-old center with a long injury history. So, unlike nearly any aging veteran refusing to quit before him, he proudly took his talents to the G League to prove his worth.
518 minutes later, with per 36 minute averages of 12.4 points, 14.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, the Pelicans were the first to take a leap of faith after a solid G League showing, signing Okafor to a 10-day contract on the heels of the Achilles injury to DeMarcus Cousins.
We’ve witnessed a grand total of only 63 minutes, but Okafor has compelled me to buy stock from the get-go.
- Despite his age, Okafor still has plenty left in the tank as his athleticism and skills all largely appear to be intact.
- An Anthony Davis-led roster needs a center to soak up meaningful minutes against the biggest individual opponents in the game.
- Okafor looks like an ideal piece for a front office that would prefer to pay around the league minimum for the rest of this season (and probably in 2018-19 too) so as to maximize remaining space on the salary cap sheet.
The displays of competent offense in the paint, the stout defensive presence at the rim and superior abilities on the glass all still exist in Okafor’s bag of tricks as we witnessed against the Detroit Pistons and Andre Drummond.
Drummond didn’t respect Okafor at the elbow so Emeka smartly punished him, moving closer to the basket off the dribble and knocking down a one-handed jumper over one of the better shot blockers in the game. Nice touch!
Okafor, as Reggie Bullock quickly found out, can still protect the rim. While he’s not likely to maintain his current 4.0 block average per 36 minutes, Okafor appears very capable of dissuading a lot of shots from inside the paint, giving Head Coach Alvin Gentry a legitimate option either next to or behind Davis.
Emeka’s ability to tap the ball out to one of the guards has been impressive; he’s averaging a healthy 3.5 offensive rebounds in a little over 15 minutes of action! Keeping a possession alive is important, yet the Pelicans have been one of the worst offensive rebounding teams on the season. This, despite the coaching staff making it one of the priorities at the start of the year.
In addition to his work on the glass, Okafor can set a screen that reminds one of an Omer Asik wall, a motor that is always in the on position and a resume that includes competing against the best of the best — nearly all of his 18,000+ minutes have come against starters. As a playoff-hopeful team, the Pelicans should not be interested in taking a chance on unproven players like Willie Reed, Georgios Papagiannis and others.
With Nikola Mirotic and Davis able to do the heavy lifting and Cheick Diallo showing signs of life, the New Orleans Pelicans don’t need a full-time center. Rather, they require a banger, preferably one with experience, understands his role and has no issue with setting aside his personal agenda, to help with two of the biggest areas of need: rebounding and defending the rim.
“You know when it’s chippy, it’s fun,” said Okafor after the Pelicans win over the Lakers. “You notice nitty-gritty, emotional, and when things get a little tense, I think that it makes it interesting for the players really, obviously the coaches, and the fans.”
Remember this: come next season, after DeMarcus Cousins likely re-signs with the Pelicans, Boogie is going to need time to come back at his pace. Forget starter’s minutes for at least the first few months, and New Orleans salary cap sheet will undoubtedly be stretched thin with Jrue Holiday, Davis and Cousins taking up an enormous slice of the pie. Okafor, on a veteran minimum two-year contract, sounds fantastic.