Emeka Okafor knows what it’s like to play for a bad team. It’s how his NBA career started and on Tuesday night he’ll be reminded of that when he and the Wizards visit the Charlotte Bobcats.
Okafor was taken by the expansion Bobcats with the second pick of the 2004 NBA draft, behind only Dwight Howard, and realized pretty quickly it would be a long rookie season.
“It was completely different; it was a fledgling organization,” Okafor recalled Monday before catching a team flight to Charlotte, where the Wizards will face the Bobcats Tuesday night.
“Everybody was brand new. It was an expansion draft, so essentially a team full of people that nobody else wanted. You’re trying to break into a new market. The whole dynamic was just different. We came in and the system is set up for you to lose.”
And the Bobcats did just that, losing eight of their first nine games and finishing next-to-last in the Eastern Conference with an 18-64 record.
Okafor was the silver lining in that season, leading all NBA rookies in points [15.1], rebounds [10.9] and minutes played [35.6] and won the Rookie of the Year honors.
Now 30 years old and in his ninth NBA season, Okafor says the vibe he’s getting in his first month with the Wizards is very different than what he felt in his first year in Charlotte, even though the Wizards are off to an 0-5 start.
“With Charlotte, it was a different type of experience, but one thing I learned there is patience,” Okafor said. “If you work, good things will happen.”
That is the approach Okafor is trying to take with himself and the Wizards this season. After averaging just 5 points, 5 rebounds and 17.6 minutes in his first three games with the Wizards, Okafor has averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds in 34 minutes in his last two games.
“He’s been really good these last two games,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “He’s been solid, an anchor to our defense.”
Okafor had a season-high 17 points in the Wizards’ 89-85 loss to the Pacers Saturday night while holding Indiana center Roy Hibbert to 7 points.
“That’s the best we’ve had somebody guard Hibbert since I’ve been here,” Wittman said. “That’s kind of what we saw when we made the trade [for Okafor]. Obviously, Nene is not part of this yet. But we have the beef to play teams like Indiana, the Dwight Howards, and the [Andrew] Bynums that we’ve never had in the past.”
Okafor says he was neither frustrated nor surprised by his slow start with the Wizards. With four of the team’s five starters not even on the Wizards’ roster last season, Okafor said he expected an adjustment period.
“Everybody is still trying to figure out exactly where we as individuals can be most effective,” he said, “and then as a team knowing where your teammates are going to be as well.”
With John Wall and Nene expected to be sidelined at least until the end of November, the Wizards are trying to build a defensive foundation early in the season. Okafor points out that despite their 0-5 start, that foundation is being laid, evidenced by the team’s ability to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter of every game.
“It’s tough [being 0-5], but I’d much rather lose by three than 30,” Okafor said. “When you can leave and know that you’re one or two or three plays away from a win, in your mind it’s not as big of an adjustment as getting blown out every night. You just have to tweak the right things, versus a complete overhaul.”
The Wizards’ next chance for their first win comes against a team that is 1-3 to start the season and has lost five straight to the Wizards.
“You can’t ever go into a game thinking that,” Okafor said, “because every team is good and every team plays differently every night. You can’t take anybody lightly.”