Emeka Okafor, the former No. 2 overall pick who has been out of the NBA for three seasons, has decided to attempt a comeback with an eye toward joining a "contending team" in December or January.
Okafor's agent, Jeff Schwartz, confirmed that Okafor, who last played for the Washington Wizards in 2012-13 before suffering a herniated disc in his neck, is in the gym training and working on his conditioning.
"He's probably five or six months away,'' Schwartz said. "He's been working hard rehabbing. For some guys that means one thing. To Emeka, who understands his body as well or better than some trainers that have worked with him, it means something else. He's healthy. He feels great, but he's a perfectionist, and he wants everything to be right.''
In his final season in Washington, Okafor averaged 9.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 26 minutes a game. He was a formidable shot-blocker and a defensive presence, helping the Wizards finish eighth in the league in points allowed per possession in 2012-13.
But Okafor, who had back surgery in college, struggled with neck pain, and when doctors discovered he had herniated the C4 cervical disc, the injury forced him to step away from the game. In October 2013, Okafor and his expiring $14.5 million contract were dealt to Phoenix in a five-player swap that netted the Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Okafor never played a game for the Suns.
His best years were with the Charlotte Bobcats, the team that drafted him as the second pick after Dwight Howard in the 2004 draft. Okafor averaged 15.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks as a rookie and posted double-double averages in all five of his seasons in Charlotte.
Retired University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said he spoke with Okafor last week. According to Calhoun, his former player, who helped UConn win a national championship in 2004 (while leading the nation in blocks), is "really excited about getting back.''
"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.''
Okafor turns 34 in September. League sources said last season he spoke with Cleveland, Miami and Golden State before deciding to delay his return. His decision to skip the grueling regiment of training camp and instead join a team a couple of months into the season is reminiscent of former major league pitcher Roger Clemens, who came out of retirement in 2006 to join his hometown Houston Astros two months into the baseball season.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers, whose club lost big men Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights in the purge to make room for free agent Kevin Durant, said he had "a conversation" with Okafor a couple of months ago and will monitor the big man's progress.
"We have 14 players right now, but you learn every year that someone you didn't expect to be available becomes an option,'' Myers said. "Ideally, you try to have the flexibility to keep a spot open in case that happens.''
The biggest hurdle for Okafor will be to prove to teams he's both healthy and durable. Aside from his back and neck injuries, Okafor missed a chunk of 2005-06 with an ankle injury and part of 2011-12 with a knee injury.
"We always pay attention to whatever is out there,'' Buford said. "But Emeka is three years removed from a time when his body was letting him down.
"It's just hard to get enough information to evaluate a player like that, who won't be in training camp, who hasn't had game action for a prolonged period of time.''
Calhoun said the long layoff has not only rejuvenated Okafor physically, but also mentally.
"He misses the game,'' Calhoun said. "Hey, he's 6-10 and was a double-double guy in the NBA. He's also the greatest guy you can find in the locker room. He'll have plenty of teams lining up to talk to him.''