Last March, the Washington Wizards traded for Nene Hilario and soon learned the value of having a veteran player who can make significant on-court contributions. Nene's younger teammates listened to his advice, benefitted from his basketball acumen, improved their games by playing against him in practice, and had some late-season success.
Nene's positive impact was one of the primary reasons the Wizards acquired Emeka Okafor from New Orleans in a trade before the draft. They understood that Okafor gives them a big man who's capable of forming a defensive-minded, physical, rebounding duo with Nene and also substituting for him if he has to sit because of injury.
Okafor, who led Connecticut to a national title before becoming the face of the Charlotte Bobcats for six seasons, is also a responsible leader. On media day, Okafor was asked where the Wizards could find leadership with Nene and John Wall out during training camp due to injuries. He smiled and said, "That would be me, I guess."
The 6-foot-10 Okafor is comfortable playing that role because the then-expansion Bobcats drafted him second overall in 2004. At that time, Okafor was similar to Wall as a rookie two years ago, asked to lead his teammates before his feet were firmly on the ground. His face was on posters and billboards. In addition, he made promotional appearances.
"Time is the best teacher," said Okafor, who now has fewer off-court responsibilities and a lower profile on his third team in Washington. "It takes time because when you're young, you don't know. You hear it; you don't quite process it. You kind of nod your head and go. I know, because I was there. Now that I'm older, I see. I see young guys making those mistakes and I'm like, 'Oh, been there. Let's fix this.'"
Okafor is excited about the possibility of returning to the playoffs, and believes the Wizards have the talent to get there. He plans to help with the experience aspect.
"I've been a part of young teams throughout my whole career, so I have the advantage of knowing what to look for knowing what's going to happen down the road," Okafor said. "I'm looking for certain things and hopefully I can address it and problems that usually plague young teams won't plague us. It's okay to make mistakes, no one's perfect, it's human to make mistakes. That's how you really learn."