Okafor’s rise helping Hornets start fast

Posted Nov. 11, 2010, at 8:15 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 11, 2010, at 9:22 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS — Emeka Okafor is now in his seventh NBA season since being drafted second overall and is still waiting to experience the playoffs for the first time.

If the 6-foot-10 center continues to play as he has during the New Orleans Hornets’ surprising 7-0 start, his wait could end by this spring.

“With the start that we’re having, the way that we’re feeling, playoffs are definitely a possibility,” Okafor said recently. “But yet, it’s still a long season and we just have to stay hungry.”

Okafor currently is third on the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game and his 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game lead the club. He’s hitting an NBA-best 72.7 percent of his shots, and when the Hornets upset Miami last week, he looked like the dominant college player he was at Connecticut. Okafor scored a team-leading 26 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against the Heat, after which teammates gave him the game ball.

“He’s a little bit more comfortable with us and what he’s trying to do,” forward David West said. “He’s a little bit more integrated into the system, so to speak, than he was last year. He can be dominant, especially in and around that basket if we keep him involved by keeping him within the flow of the game.”

When Okafor first arrived in New Orleans last season in a trade that sent Tyson Chandler to Charlotte, he talked eagerly of having his best chance to finally make the playoffs. Then the Hornets unraveled amid coaching changes and injuries to key players, most notably All-Star point guard Chris Paul.

Okafor also had missed 2009 training camp with a toe injury, then played through the latter part of the season with a right ankle injury and wound up with career low averages in points (10.4) and rebounds (9). That wasn’t going to cut it for a player earning $11.5 million this season on a team that is trying to stay close to the salary cap, while at the same time appease Paul by showing that it is building a contender.

Okafor said he was confident all along that this season would be better for him and the team.

“Last year was just weird, so I almost kind of discount that,” Okafor said. “A lot of things happened and it was just a bizarro season. Given that it was just an awkward year, awkward things will happen.”

During another long offseason devoid of postseason play, Okafor traveled to South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Spain, then returned to New Orleans ready to start fresh with new coach Monte Williams and a roster full of new players.

In the Hornets’ first game, Okafor had a team-high nine rebounds but did not attempt a shot. Williams said he did not have a problem with that because West was shooting so well that game that it was only natural for teammates to be looking for him.

However, when he studied video, he saw several instances in which Okafor was open and teammates weren’t looking at him.

“So the next day in film I just showed the fellas,” Williams recalled. “I’m like, ‘Look, we got to exploit that or we’re going to play five on four, and we don’t want that.’”

Since then, Okafor has been a double-digit scorer in all but one game at San Antonio, when he had nine points.

“I have to give it to my teammates,” Okafor said. “They’ve done a good job looking for me and keeping me involved. And as a big, when you’re involved in the offense and you’re getting that ball, you just feel more engaged and all of a sudden your rhythm’s up, your legs have more spring and whatnot.”

While Okafor praises the 39-year-old Williams with injecting a fresh, energetic approach, Williams compliments Okafor’s mature work ethic.

“Emeka’s here when I get here, working on his game or working on his body,” Williams said after Thursday’s practice. “Then afterward, he’s working on his game for another hour-and-a-half.”

Williams added that Okafor’s “natural ability” accounts for a lot of his blocks, tip-ins and putbacks, many of which have come at critical times as the Hornets won their first six games each by single digits.

Williams said he also like the way Okafor, who is quick for his size, has adapted to a defensive scheme that emphasizes a team approach over one-on-one matchups. Several times this season, Okafor has rotated away from the basket to guard smaller players, including ball-handling guards.

“Our team defense has been better than any individual; that’s what we’ve been preaching,” Williams began. “He’s the anchor behind all of our guys and he’s done a great job.”

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