OAKLAND, Calif. – Less than a week before the start of the season, the New Orleans Hornets still don’t know what to make of new center Emeka Okafor(notes). He has yet to play or even practice with them, and his prolonged absence has some team members privately shaking their heads.
Okafor has missed all seven of the Hornets’ preseason games because of a strained toe on his right foot. He isn’t expected to play in Friday’s preseason finale against the Los Angeles Clippers and his status for Wednesday’s season opener against the San Antonio Spurs remains in doubt.
An NBA source told Yahoo! Sports that Okafor was cleared to play by the Hornets’ medical staff two weeks ago and by his own doctor a week later. Most of Okafor’s teammates know he has been cleared and are eager to see whether he works out with them for the first time over the weekend.
“He better practice Sunday or he could lose some guys,” one Hornet said.
Prior to the Hornets’ shootaround on Thursday morning, Okafor acknowledged he has been medically cleared to play “based on how I feel.” He said he hopes to practice on Sunday.
“He might have been cleared medically, but from a mental standpoint he is not cleared,” New Orleans coach Byron Scott said. “In his mind, he says he’s not ready. When you have a guy that says he is not ready, the worst thing you can do is force him to get out there.”
The Hornets made Okafor their big offseason acquisition after acquiring him from the Charlotte Bobcats in a trade for oft-injured center Tyson Chandler(notes). Okafor injured his toe just before training camp began and said the initial plan was for him to play his first preseason game last Saturday. But after the toe was still sore when he tested it on Oct. 12, he said he needed to take a more cautious approach with the injury.
So far, Okafor hasn’t participated in anything with his teammates aside from walking through the Hornets’ offense during one practice. Point guard Chris Paul(notes) coaxed him to participate in the walk-through, one team source said.
Okafor’s absence in practice has kept him from building any chemistry with his new teammates and limited his conditioning. Okafor, who thinks he can get in shape quickly, said the Hornets have put no pressure on him to return, but that he’s planning on playing in the season-opener.
“If a guy tells me he’s hurt, I have to believe him,” Scott said. “We have to do everything we can to make sure that when he comes back he is healthy.”
Okafor said the injury has been more serious than it appears.
“You can ask anyone that’s had a toe injury, it sounds super weak and it sounds like an insignificant thing,” Okafor said. “But that’s your foundation. You can have a nice house, and a foundation has a crack in it and then it’s all for naught. The whole thing comes crumbling down.
“People don’t realize how much your toe has to do with your movements. That’s carrying your whole weight. If something is off that carries your whole weight and you’re not careful, it’s something that can trickle and cause other things to mess up. The season is a marathon, not a sprint. You want to give your body a chance to not only heal short-term, but long-term."
After losing in the first round of last season’s playoffs, the Hornets are counting on Okafor to help return them among the Western Conference’s top contenders. Though Okafor was initially shocked by his trade from Charlotte, he said he’s “really excited” to play in New Orleans. He’s slowly getting to know his teammates, a process made tougher given Chandler’s popularity in the locker room.
Still, the Hornets are confident Okafor can produce more than Chandler, who played in only 45 games last season. The Hornets initially traded Chandler to Oklahoma City in February only to have the deal voided over concerns about his turf toe condition. Okafor averaged 13.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks last season and has played in all 82 games each of the past two seasons.
“This is a big year for [Okafor],” Scott said. “As far as the critics are concerned, he can shut up a whole lot of people. We brought him here because he can score in the low post and take some pressure off Chris and David and give us that third guy. If he can do the things and deliver the things that we talked about, then he is going to be successful.”
But while Okafor’s stats and résumé look good, the antsy Hornets are more than ready to see him play in person.
“We got guys that can play,” West said. “But Emeka came into this league as a starter. He knows what it’s like to be on the floor and counted on. We need his presence.”