Emeka Okafor is a UConn legend in many ways. He was named Most Outstanding Player in the 2004 NCAA Tournament for leading the Huskies to their second national championship. He won two straight national defensive player of the year awards. His rebounding ability was so strong that he’s still fifth all-time among all Big East players in total rebounds, and he did it all in just three seasons (he’s the only three-year player in the top fifteen). He has always represented the UConn community well and is highly respected by both teammates and opponents. After Storrs, he became the highest-picked UConn player ever taken in the NBA draft.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already know most of that. There’s also a decent chance you know that Emeka Okafor, after a good, solid run of nine seasons in the NBA, was forced to miss the last four years due to recurring injuries. You’ve also probably heard something about his recent comeback attempt(s), the current one being with the New Orleans Pelicans.
But did you know just how well he’s been playing?
Now, I don’t want to overreact—he hasn’t been playing at a superstar level—but his numbers are excellent. He’s 35 years old and is getting the minutes of a bench player, and there’s only so much impact any player can have in that role over just three games. But he sure doesn’t look as if he spent the last four seasons not playing basketball.
Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 12.6 points, 14.2 rebounds (the highest of his career), 4.2 blocks (by far the highest of his career), and 1.7 assists (again...highest of his career). Even better, he hasn’t committed a turnover yet, giving him a per-36 average of...zero turnovers. Those numbers aren’t just good for him, they’re good for any center, and typically indicate a player who is deserving of additional playing time.
Okafor’s field goal percentage is a little low right now, at a positionally below-average .400, but he’s only had so many opportunities, so there’s a bit of small sample size at play here.
The advanced stats look good too. His rebounding percentage is highest on the team, his usage rate is pretty low (which is a good thing for a center without much shooting range), and he gets to the free throw line at a solid rate. Okafor’s Player Efficiency Rating is 21.8, third on the team behind Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, which, I mean... hard to blame him for that. He’s also one of only five Pelicans with a positive Box Plus-Minus, along with Cousins, Davis, Jrue Holiday, and benchwarmer DeAndre Liggins.
Unfortunately, what’s tougher for Okafor is where he fits into the Pelicans lineup. With Cousins out with injury for the rest of the season, there’s definitely room for another center in the frontcourt rotation. But when it comes to deciding where to play Okafor, that’s another question entirely. Alvin Gentry has tried a few options, and the pairing he seems to like the most is alongside young power forward Cheick Diallo, who hasn’t made good on his potential just yet.
With the Pelicans struggling to find their best lineups, Okafor might not be in New Orleans for the rest of the season. They do seem impressed so far, however, as he was signed to a second 10-day contract after the expiration of his first one, a sign that they want to see more of him. Regardless, if Okafor’s play even dips only a little from what he’s done in the first three games, he is likely to remain in the NBA for the rest of the season—and maybe next year too.