|Bobcats F Emeka Okafor prepares for pivotal offseason as a restricted free agent|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 14 April 2008 12:04|
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.
``This is my team,'' Okafor said as sweat poured down his face during a break in a pregame workout last week. ``I've been here from the jump. Of course I want to stay here.''
It's 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 franchise's first playoff berth.
Vincent's future is also uncertain. Basketball operations chief Michael Jordan has said he'll decide after the season if Vincent will return.
``When there's change, there are growing pains,'' said Okafor, who got into a heated exchange with Vincent at the end of a December practice. ``It's not the same chemistry and some things take time. It's been - it's been all right.''
An academic All-American with a finance degree from Connecticut, Okafor likes making calculated decisions.
It's why he turned down the Bobcats' contract offer before the start of the season, passing on security for a chance at a bigger payday - perhaps somewhere else if the Bobcats don't match another team's offer this summer.
``We spent some time the night of the deadline when he had to make the decision,'' Vincent said. ``We talked about it and he expressed some strong views on why he preferred to wait it out. I think he's gone on and had a real solid season.''
Okafor is on pace to play all 82 games for the first time, which he attributes to his extensive workout regimen. Okafor's offensive statistics - 13.8 points and 10.7 rebounds a game - are slightly lower than last season and don't come close to the player he's often compared to.
Orlando's 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 doesn't demand the ball and disappears for stretches. He's 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 Vincent's puzzling moves this season is how he's used Okafor. There was a four-game stretch last month where he didn't play more than 27 minutes and failed to reach double figures. It prompted Okafor to ask for a meeting with Vincent.
``I just needed consistent minutes so I knew where I stood,'' 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 win at Indiana on Saturday.
``I think Emeka is a great player,'' Vincent said. ``I think he's got a great body, which gives him a chance to be real dominant in the post, both offensively and defensively.
``I think he's 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 he's trying to work on that spot-up 15-foot jumper.''
Now the Bobcats have to decide how much Okafor is worth. Jordan rarely speaks to reporters, and Okafor's agent, Jeff Schwartz, didn't return a phone message Monday. The two sides can't negotiate again until July.
``I really don't get into whether he's a max player and whether he'll get max money,'' Vincent said. ``I think he's going to make a decision based on where he feels comfortable, in an organization where he wants to be, with teammates that he's comfortable being around.''
The question is whether that's still Charlotte.
``I'm a fierce competitor,'' Okafor said. ``I like being in a place that's building, progressing and moving forward and making the right moves. I'm all about winning.''