An examination of Emeka Okafor to see if the Washington Wizards should sign him as he attempts to return after 3 years without setting foot on an NBA court.
According to ESPN, Emeka Okafor is feeling great and wants to return to the NBA.
Yes, the same Emeka Okafor who was the 2nd overall selection in the 2004 NBA Draft and the Rookie of the Year in 2005.
I don’t think I have to inform you, but it is 2016 now and those things happened over a decade ago. (Yes, I feel old now too.) Okafor has not even slid on an NBA jersey since the 2012-2013 season. Below is a highlight video to jog your memory on Okafor’s NBA game.
Let us examine what Okafor bring to the table on the court and see if the Wizards should be the team that signs him.
Offensive Skills and Production
Emeka Okafor’s NBA career numbers look great. He is a career 51.2% shooter from the field who averaged 3.2 offensive rebounds, 0.9 assists, and 12.3 points in 31.7 minutes per game. If you look at his most recent NBA season, he shot 47.7% from the field, 2.5 offensive rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 9.7 points in 26 minutes per game.
The numbers are productive, but it has been 3 full seasons since he played a minute on the court and Okafor is now 33 years old.
Let us look at his shot chart from the 2012-2013 season for further insight into Okafor’s offensive game.
To my surprise, Okafor is a very effective mid-range shooter. From his poor free throw percentage numbers, a career 58.4% shooter, I did not expect Okafor to shoot above league average from the paint and just below from mid-range. Add in his 63.1% from the restricted area and Okafor’s offensive game looks strong for a center.
We cannot forget he has aged 3 years since any of this production took place. We do not know the level of training he has done in those 3 years, but for 6’10 and a 250-pound man he can make the defense respect his offensive game from both the paint and the mid-range a valuable commodity for a team with quality 3 point shooters already in hand.
Defensive Skills and Production
Okafor has always produced solid defensive stats throughout his career. In 2012-2013, he averaged 6.2 defensive rebounds, 0.6 steals, and 1.0 block per game in 26 minutes. Unfortunately, defensive shot charts do not date back to the 2012-2013 season, but let us examine further with a scouting report.
This scouting report dates back to 2008, but it says a lot of things about Okafor’s defense that could still translate into his game in 2016. It lists Okafor’s strengths as “outstanding inside defender despite his lack of a typical center’s height”, “very smart in executing team defensive concepts”, and “his basketball IQ is high - he always seems to be in the right place at the right time defensively”. Even in 8 years, I do not believe Okafor lost basketball IQ or the ability to execute a team defensive concept.
I believe even at age 33, Okafor would still produce defensively because most of the skills he has displayed on the defensive end have little to do with athletic ability and more to do with using your brain and positioning to execute your assignments.
Now let u take a look at Emeka Okafor’s advanced metrics to see how he stacks up. Okafor posted a career-high offensive box score plus/minus of negative 0.5 in 2006-2007. In his final NBA season, he produced a negative 3.2 on offense, but he contributed a positive 2.0 on defense to have a value over replacement player (VORP) of 0.5.
Looking at win shares, Okafor produced 0.7 on offense, 3.7 on defense, and his win shares per 48 were .104 (.100 is league average) in 2012-2013. All advanced metrics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
Overall, Okafor produced a just above league average season in 2012-2013. Given that 3 full seasons have passed without Okafor on the court, it would be difficult to imagine him producing the same numbers. The numbers are very strong on the defensive end, so the potential is there for Okafor to still be an effective defensive presence in the NBA today.
Okafor has never been a stranger to injuries. The reason he hasn’t played in the last 3 NBA seasons is a herniated disc in his neck. He initially tried to rehab the injury, but in February 2014 CBS Sports reported that he had a neck surgery. This is obviously a serious injury (Prince Fielder had just retired from the MLB last week after a 2nd fusion surgery to fix a herniated disc in his neck) and has kept Okafor from the court for 3 seasons.
Can we expect him to come back and play now?
Let us not forget that Okafor has had other injuries in his career too. He only played 26 games in 2005-2006 with an ankle injury and was held to 27 games in 2011-2012 with a knee injury.
The injury history is definitely a concern. If he truly is healthy I believe he would still need his minutes managed, with the risk of re-injury high, given his age and injury history.
Let us review, Okafor displayed a strong offensive game in the mid-range and attacking the basket, has always posted strong defensive numbers, and the advanced metrics rated him above league average in his last NBA season. 3 full NBA seasons have passed since he has played a minute on the court and the injury history is quite large and frankly, a little bit scary.
Can he still be a productive NBA player? At age 33 without playing on the court in 3 years, I would say he will be a slightly below average player, but has the ability to be a presence on the defensive end. If he slots into an 8-15 minute a night role, I could see him being a productive back-up.
Should the Washington Wizards sign him?
First of all, he says he will only sign with a contending team, but I believe the Wizards have the talent and coach to be a contending team this season.
The frontcourt rotation looks strong in Washington, but I could see a role for Okafor playing behind Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi as a third center. It would allow Okafor to play the role best suited to him at this stage in his career and allow him to prove in limited court time that he can still be a productive player.
If I am the Washington Wizards I have no problem bringing back Emeka Okafor if he is healthy on a short, inexpensive contract. You have the depth to cover if Okafor proves he cannot stay healthy and maybe you get lucky and get a productive big man on the cheap for a few seasons.
Emeka Okafor is a worthy gamble in this observer’s opinion.