The Wizards horrid start to the season has not only dramatically impeded Washington's playoff chances, it helped make Emeka Okafor's career double-double average disappear.
During the pre-Christmas portions of the season, the 6-foot-10 veteran center certainly did little to help his statistical cause. The only member of the roster to play in every game this season, Okafor joined Washington averaging over 10 points and 10 rebounds per game. Because of lacking rebound numbers, his career glass work average then dropped below 10 per game. The career double-double, poof, gone.
Without Nene's inside presence for a several games and John Wall sidelined even longer, the Wizards needed steady, if not heightened production from those available. Instead Okafor did not rack up one double-double during the first 24 games, of which the Wizards won three. In several of those games, including the season opener, Washington's highest paid player played little if at all in the fourth quarter.
That was then. Okafor's 15 points and 16 rebounds performance against the Bulls on Saturday represented his ninth double-double in the last 18 games. Just like team he's leading defensively, Okafor is playing his best brand of basketball of the season - and been doing so for a while. Okafor's run started with 14 and 14 against Detroit on Dec. 22 with another double-double in the next game four days later against Cleveland.
“He was incredible. He’s been incredible," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said following Saturday's 86-73 victory. "He got one rebound tonight towards the end there where he went up with two hands and I didn’t know if he was coming down. He’s been consistent and an anchor from a defensive standpoint as well."
With virtually all of its primary players back, Washington has won 7 of 10 games, including five straight at home, the last four by double figures.
"This solidifies and lets us know guys are making moves in the right direction," Okafor said. "We are the team that we thought we were supposed to be, fully loaded."
Nene repeatedly called his fellow big man's effort on both ends of the court against the Bulls, "amazing." John Wall, who spent the first two years of his NBA career largely playing with undisciplined interior options said, "Emeka is doing a great job defending the basket and doing a heck of a job rebounding for us. And that’s making the game easier. It’s great to have him down there protecting the rim.”
So what has changed, why now and why not then for Okafor? For one, according to the 30-year-old, consistency, in terms of role and perhaps most of all, minutes and when they would come.
"Early in the year it was hard for me to find a rhythm cause I didn't know when I was coming in or coming out," said Okafor, who is averaging 10.1 points and 10.7 rebounds in January. "There was no sense of rhythm for playing wise. Now I have a sense of when I'm in and I can just focus on that."
Then there is the Brazilian big man. Nene's brawn balances nicely with Okafor's lengthy agility. They both sport supple minds from having played many years in the NBA trenches.
"We've seen all types of situations," Okafor said. "We can make reads off each other without even saying anything. We just read off each other and react. Makes things a lot easier."
Part of roster makeover, which started when the Wizards acquired Nene midway through last season, involved adding positive influences if not downright role models for the largely youthful roster. It also involved having all involved comprehend success is not simply about what happens during games, but how one prepares for them.
“Kid works hard. Not only on the court but in the training room, in the weight room, it’s paying off," Martell Webster said. "His body’s doing great things for him, he continues to play the game smart, and he’s going to find himself in a majority of these games with double-doubles. It’s a testament to him; my hat goes off to him too.”
Okafor's consistency in the training room epitomizes his lead by example approach.
"His work ethic is tremendous. He's like the first one here and the last one to leave," said 19-year-old Bradley Beal. "He takes care of his body and he's strictly business. He hardly talks; I talk more than he does."
Right now Okafor's production is doing plenty of talking.
As for the career double-double, Okafor is now averaging 9.9 rebounds. Considering he's played over 550 NBA games, even 30 rebounds against the Kings won't add another digit before the decimal (for the record, 42 would). Still, if Okafor keeps up with his rediscovered pace, he'll get there soon enough.