Okafor ready to test restricted free agency
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Emeka Okafor has one of the most extensive pregame warmup routines in the NBA. Heíll spend an hour after games stretching and taking care of his body.
The Charlotte Bobcats forward will follow that strict schedule twice more this week. Then the methodical first draft pick in team history enters the unknown: restricted free agency.
iThis is my team,î Okafor said as sweat poured down his face during a break in a pregame workout last week. iIíve been here from the jump. Of course I want to stay here.î
Itís far from a lock. The 6-foot-10 power forward has clashed at times with first-year coach Sam Vincent, who has rubbed several players the wrong way in a disappointing season that ends Wednesday without the franchiseís first playoff berth.
Vincentís future is also uncertain. Basketball operations chief Michael Jordan has said heíll decide after the season if Vincent will return.
iWhen thereís change, there are growing pains,î said Okafor, who got into a heated exchange with Vincent at the end of a December practice. iItís not the same chemistry and some things take time. Itís been ó itís been all right.î
An academic All-American with a finance degree from Connecticut, Okafor likes making calculated decisions.
Itís why he turned down the Bobcatsí contract offer before the start of the season, passing on security for a chance at a bigger payday ó perhaps somewhere else if the Bobcats donít match another teamís offer this summer.
iWe spent some time the night of the deadline when he had to make the decision,î Vincent said. iWe talked about it and he expressed some strong views on why he preferred to wait it out. I think heís gone on and had a real solid season.î
Okafor is on pace to play all 82 games for the first time, which he attributes to his extensive workout regimen. Okaforís offensive statistics ó 13.8 points and 10.7 rebounds a game ó are slightly lower than last season and donít come close to the player heís often compared to.
Orlandoís Dwight Howard, the No. 1 pick in 2004, averages 20.9 points and last summer cashed in on a five-year deal worth about $85 million, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.
Okafor, the No. 2 pick, often struggles to finish around the basket. He sometimes doesnít demand the ball and disappears for stretches. Heís also a horrible free-throw shooter at 57 percent.
But Okafor has been the defensive cog and heart of the Bobcats in their first four seasons in the league.
One of Vincentís puzzling moves this season is how heís used Okafor. There was a four-game stretch last month where he didnít play more than 27 minutes and failed to reach double figures. It prompted Okafor to ask for a meeting with Vincent.
iI just needed consistent minutes so I knew where I stood,î Okafor said.
Now back to playing about 35 minutes a game, Okafor has thrived late in the season. He had 24 points and eight rebounds in a loss at New York on Wednesday and 14 points and 18 rebounds in a victory at Indiana on Saturday.
iI think Emeka is a great player,î Vincent said. iI think heís got a great body, which gives him a chance to be real dominant in the post ó both offensively and defensively.
iI think heís continuing to work on his offensive game, which has given him a wider range of offensive moves so he can score not only with the jump-hook, but heís trying to work on that spot-up 15-foot jumper.î
Now the Bobcats have to decide how much Okafor is worth. Jordan rarely speaks to reporters, and Okaforís agent, Jeff Schwartz, didnít return a phone message Monday. The two sides canít negotiate again until July.
iI really donít get into whether heís a max player and whether heíll get max money,î Vincent said. iI think heís going to make a decision based on where he feels comfortable, in an organization where he wants to be, with teammates that heís comfortable being around.î
The question is whether thatís still Charlotte.
iIím a fierce competitor,î Okafor said. iI like being in a place thatís building, progressing and moving forward and making the right moves. Iím all about winning.î