Former Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor eyes an NBA return

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Emeka Okafor and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3745/" data-ylk="slk:Zaza Pachulia">Zaza Pachulia</a> in 2013. (Getty Images)
Emeka Okafor and Zaza Pachulia in 2013. (Getty Images)

Emeka Okafor wasn’t the only one who watched the terrible-so-far 2017 NBA playoffs and thought, yeah, I could play a few minutes here.

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The former Rookie of the Year, out of the NBA since just before the 2013-14 season, would like to return to the league after a four-season absence. The Associated Press’ Jon Krawczynski revealed as much on Tuesday:

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At its fullest, the tank did good work for the former Charlotte, New Orleans and Washington center, who won the 2004-05 Rookie of the Year ahead of Dwight Howard (struggling to acclimate in Atlanta, possibly soon to be in his fifth home in five years), and former UConn teammate and then-Bull Ben Gordon (out of the NBA despite repeated comeback attempts).

Okafor’s tank, at first glance, wouldn’t appear to be as depleted as that pair, who have battled pro level talent throughout Emeka’s time spent away from the NBA. If Okafor were to latch on with an NBA team for 2017-18, a performance in the opening week of the season would represent a break from a 54-month game absence. That could mean Okafor, who will turn 35 in September, could have a leg up on many his age.

Back injuries are enervating, though, and Okafor wouldn’t be returning to an all-world career. He was a fine and much respected center at every outpost, with career averages of 12.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 31.7 minutes. Emeka wasn’t declining severely before his NBA break, but he was declining – turning in single-digit point and rebound campaigns in his final two years in NOLA and Washington.

We draw you back to what his college coach, Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun, said last summer:

“He’s in great shape,” Calhoun said. “He had offers last season from teams for $6-7 million to play just a portion of the season, but you have to know Emeka. He’s only coming back when he feels the time is right.

“He’s not going to make a decision based on money. He doesn’t need it. This is a kid who graduated with a 3.9 GPA. He wants to play a couple more years then go to business school at Harvard. He’s only going to play for a contending team.”

Calhoun said this before Okafor’s camp let out that the center was interested in playing again, but that he’d need until midseason to join any NBA team while he worked himself back into pro detail.

We wrote at the time that this could get in the way of interest, and while there’s no telling if it did sway teams away from inking Okafor in the winter, last summer’s idea still makes sense.

In a league starved as ever for help around the rim, be it in the form of a orthodoxy-defying multi-positional guy or a traditional, boxy center, job offers will always abound. However, with the attention to detail stronger than ever in advance of frontcourt defense planning, it’s best to have the backup (or even backup to the backup) big man in camp in September, and not strolling in mid-January.

With this release, Okafor intends to be around and ready to play in the same we he’ll turn 35. Though he would stand as that traditional, boxy center listed above, those guys work. Though Pau Gasol (soon to turn 37) is older, Nene turns 35 just a few weeks before Okafor, and Tyson Chandler a month after. All three have done swimmingly as starters in 2016-17, and presumably Okafor is not asking to start. Just for some relief appearances.

That’s more than workable, provided Emeka Okafor has returned to full, reliable, health.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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