Every now and then, stories of perseverance emerge in the world of sports.
When DeMarcus Cousins tragically suffered a ruptured Achilles a couple weeks ago, the New Orleans Pelicans were essentially left scrambling.
How would they replace their All-Star center who was averaging a ridiculous stat line of 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game?
After some mixing and matching, it was obvious that coach Alvin Gentry’s club was slipping. After going 2-5 without Cousins, the coach made a bold decision heading into Monday’s game.
Absolutely no one saw it coming, either.
Emeka Okafor would start at center. The last time that Okafor started an NBA game was back on April 15, 2013. That’s almost five years ago. After suffering a herniated disc in his neck that season, he spent multiple years regaining his health, but by that time, no team decided to give the No. 2 pick of the 2004 Draft a second chance.
Earlier this month, Okafor signed a 10-day contract with the Pelicans and had a few opportunities to showcase his skills since. In nine minutes of action against the Utah Jazz on February 5, he had three points and two rebounds. On February 9 against the Philadelphia 76ers, he saw 20 minutes of action and filled the stat sheet with four points, eight rebounds, two assists and four blocks. Despite not getting in the next game against the Brooklyn Nets, Gentry turned to him to start on Monday against Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons.
In a 118-103 victory, the 35-year-old big man posted eight points on 4-of-10 shooting to go along with seven boards and a block in just 14 minutes.
After the game, Okafor was clearly thrilled. “It was awesome. It feels good to be back in whatever capacity. Being able to start tonight was awesome, and being able to contribute to the win,” he told Pelicans beat writer Jim Eichenhofer.
Anthony Davis was appreciative of Okafor’s effort, especially against his All-Star opponent. “He did a good job. He was able to rebound the basketball, set screens for us, block some shots. He was talking a lot on defense, banging down low with Andre (Drummond),” he noted.
Judging by his lack of competition on New Orleans’ roster, it is presumed that he will at least be given another 10-day contract. He could even be signed for the rest of the season.
It’s worth noting that Okafor’s presence in the starting five could be short-lived. Gentry elected to send Nikola Mirotic to the bench in order to better match up against the tandem of Blake Griffin and Drummond. Although Okafor’s performance most likely earned him some playing time, it seems as though he may be in store for a spot start only in certain situations.
In 26 games for the Delaware 87ers (G-League affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers) earlier this season, Okafor averaged 6.8 points and 8.0 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. Although those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, the Pelicans’ scouting department did their due diligence and most likely decided to give him a shot based on his track record.
Now in his 10th NBA season, Okafor holds career averages of 12.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 31.6 minutes per contest. If he is able to return to form and help the Pelicans for the rest of the season, it’d be one of the feel-good stories of the year.