Should Wizards Fans Panic? Falling Back with Okafor’s Cervical Disc and Singleton’s Fifth Metatarsal
Something, something, pumpkin spice!… Something, something, flu shot time!… Something, something, Wizards injuries!… FALL IS HERE!
Or so went the commonly and rapidly disseminated joke on Twitter last Wednesday, September 18. First came the news about Chris Singleton via team press release:
Chris Singleton will have outpatient surgery today to repair a Jones fracture to the fifth metatarsal of his left foot. He will be out approximately six to eight weeks.
Singleton got hurt scrimmaging at the Verizon Center, preparing himself for the upcoming season and building chemistry with some new teammates leading up to training camp. The injury, called a “Jones fracture” and said to sometimes feel more like a sprained foot, often comes with a bumpy road to recovery. A Jones fracture helped contribute to the end of Yao Ming’s career. The ailment is part of the reason that Rodrigue Beaubois, once dubbed “the darker Tony Parker,” has all but disappeared from the dazzling scene of young NBA point guards. The surgery that Singleton had the day of the announcement will hopefully ensure that his injury won’t be recurring.
Singleton going down was more of a blow to him (and his long-term career prospects) than the Wizards, but rest assured it puts the organization in a tough spot.
With the wing position already crowded by Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza (and, ideally, Otto Porter), and time at “big” positions set to be consumed by Nene, Emeka Okafor, Kevin Seraphin, and Al Harrington, team brass had hopes of pitting three players against each other—Singleton, Jan Vesely and Trevor Booker—with the idea that at least one of them would surface from camp and fill the role of junk bench player. (While the others are told to ‘stay ready.’)
The junk forward hustles, rebounds with reckless abandon, runs with John Wall, and shows a glimmer of being able to knock down open jumpers to the point where teams respect him more, which then opens the floor for Wall. With Wizards coach Randy Wittman often turning to smaller lineups late in games last season (partially to cure anemic offense), having a diverse athlete rise to the occasion is still the idea, even with the newly signed Harrington.
Organizational confidence in the futures of each Singleton, Booker and Vesely has waned to various extents, and it puts that anxiety in a bind when a third of the equation goes down for perhaps two months. Singleton’s part of the equation played more minutes (2,355) over the last two seasons than either Booker (2,148) or Vesely (1,679). That combined with more experience playing either the 3 or the 4, and Singleton’s presumably better jump shot*, may have given him a leg up on the competition.
[*Note: Booker shot 37.5%, 12-for-32, from mid-range last season; Singleton shot 36.2%, 21-for-58; and Jan Vesely... please. (OK, he shot 2-for-9.)]
Then came the news about Emeka Okafor just 72 minutes after the Singleton news, via team release:
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld announced today that center Emeka Okafor will be out indefinitely after being diagnosed with a herniated C4 cervical disc.
Time for some good ole #SoWizards panic on Twitter…
This Okafor injury is terrible for the Wizards
— Jay Wadyka (@jamaican_jay) September 18, 2013
@Truth_About_It Da hell is in the water at Verizon Center. Whatever it is, don't drink….
— Mr. ManSitChoAzzDown (@AngryBlkManDC) September 18, 2013
I would even trade seeing John Wall retweet 13,000 birthday wishes again if it meant Okafor was good to go
— Trevor Jackson (@tjackson85) September 18, 2013
Okafor out indefinitely yikesssssssssssssssss
— karennnnnnn (@kayyybelita) September 18, 2013
@Truth_About_It Im cringing at Nene's Plantar Flascitis. Is it really healed? I hope so now!!
— dino (@DinoHTTR) September 18, 2013
News of Okafor's injury makes me glad the #Wizards spent their biannual exception on a scrub PG instead of getting some big man depth.
— Kevin Broom (@Broom_Kevin) September 18, 2013
— Sunday (@AnyGiven) September 18, 2013
— Ryan (@RyanGVT) September 18, 2013
In a conference call with media hours after the announcement, Okafor said that he first noticed the issue a couple weeks prior after playing 5-on-5 in New York. He didn’t think it was serious at the time, just neck stiffness. But it didn’t get better, time went by, and he decided that an MRI was in his best interest. That’s when Okafor discovered his indefinite status. Will he miss training camp? Preseason? The entire season?
“I’m positive I’ll make it back,” Okafor said, sounding neither ominous nor hopeful.
Traditionally, long-time followers of the Wizards could not help themselves. Anguish, like shit, rolls downhill. It didn’t exactly matter who was injured, it was the fact that it was someone at all, one of 15 … and then two of 15. General NBA fans and other Wizards Nation outsiders didn’t universally understand the panic, naturally magnified via the ever-expanding scope of social media. NBA coverage generalists associated an ‘oh brother’ / par-for-the-course attitude—this franchise can’t help itself. Knowledgeable basketball minds understood the blow.
Okafor is known for taking supreme care of his body, but he was considered damaged goods when the Wizards traded for him last summer. A knee injury deprived him of most of his 2011-12 season, much to the chagrin of New Orleans Hornets fans. After an eye-rolling, listless start to his first season in D.C., Okafor suddenly, but not surprisingly, became the most reliable player on the team. (He’s also the most expensive.)
Okafor was the steady defensive presence that no one in Washington was used to. Before Wall came back, Okafor averaged 7.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and shot 45.5 percent from the field, 35 percent from mid-range. Post-Wall (46 games), Okafor averaged 10.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 49 percent from the field, and 41.6 percent from mid-range. Supposed shooter Nene Hilario shot 30 percent from mid-range after Wall’s January 12 return, according to NBA.com/stats. Okafor was part of a select group of NBA bigs who averaged at least 10 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 49 percent from the field after mid-January—Tim Duncan, Al Horford, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe, Nikola Vucevic, JJ Hickson, David Lee, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, Omer Asik, and Tristan Thompson. Aside from Duncan, Okafor was the only player amongst the crew who had a Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions while on the floor) below 100 points (99.7). He was the most refreshing dose of anti-JaVale McGee a coach could imagine. Okafor’s leadership, particularly when it came to John Wall, was an unquestionably huge bonus.
“Approximately 80 percent of herniated discs can be managed conservatively,” according to the website of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Florida. Understandably, Okafor and the Wizards are going to handle this injury with extra care, as any team would. Meaning: they will try an array of treatments and surgery isn’t an option that they want to even think about right now, but there will be a point when it could be considered.
Okafor, in his conference call, said a number of options were laid out to him and that a course of rehab was the best path. He ran down the list of things that he and medical professionals would try in hopes of getting lucky, essentially. Both physical and manual manipulation, some traction, some neck work, and some spinal exercises are all on Okafor’s plate for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the best news was the Okafor indicated that the injury was worst at its onset, that he was not experiencing any numbness or weakness in his arms or other spots, and that his symptoms, upon discovery, were improving by the day. He said that this herniated disk injury is different from the back issues he experienced while at the University of Connecticut over a decade ago (small fractures that led to spasms in his lower back per reports), other than the fact that problem at Uconn never bothered him again once solved. He hopes that this current issue takes the same path.
Okafor said he was “pretty optimistic” that he could resolve the injury with physical therapy. But his timetable in any regard: “indefinite at this point.”
“I don’t see anything less than a playoff team,” Okafor also said in the face of his injury. But what else would he say?
Time for Wizards fans to panic? Not exactly.
General, fact-based talking point facts naturally arose after the news, mostly from team outlets. The Wizards have a full roster of 15. This is why you have depth. The increased urgency in the young players stepping up can’t hurt. And of course, “You can only dress 13 … we’d have two guys in suits anyway,” was the sentiment of Ted Leonsis on 106.7 The Fan with Lavar Arrington and Chad Dukes.
Could the Wizards withstand Okafor missing 40 games and still make the playoffs? Does the injury bump Washington’s ceiling from the fifth seed to the eighth seed in the East? Some have asked. Yes and maybe.
Ten of Washington’s first 16 games are on the road. The home games: Nets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Knicks, Lakers—all quality, likely playoff teams—and then the 76ers in the home opener. (OK, let’s not get too carried away with calling the Lakers a playoff team.) The young Wizards, 19-and-96 on the road during the John Wall era, are still trying to show that they can win at home consistently while being aware that the next level doesn’t come until they prove themselves on hostile ground. Did I mention that 20 out of Washington’s first 36 games are on the road?
A strong start to the season is imperative, and doing such without Okafor would be a major hindrance. It’s not that other players can’t step up, but rather that the loss of Okafor further degrades what was already an insufficient skill area for the Wizards: interior defensive toughness. Trevor Booker can hustle, rebound and enforce the paint, but his status on the small side of a tweener 4 was often exposed last season, and he’s not as aware on team defense as one would hope. Jan Vesely made huge strides in building confidence during the Las Vegas Summer League and at EuroBasket, but he is still relatively weak (physically and mentally, otherwise we wouldn’t get the daily speech about his confidence issues), unselfish to a fault, and opposing teams are going to attack him like a weak link until he proves otherwise.
“Seraphin, he has one thing that you need in this league, confidence [chuckles], and he has plenty of that,” Okafor gushed over the phone about the No. 1 guy in line to replace him. “And he has a good workman’s attitude. To add, he has great touch around the basket and the desire to learn,” Okafor continued. But if Seraphin can’t defend (something that takes years to hone, not a summer), rebound, or keep his butt in the paint enough on offense to earn more trips to the free throw line, then a top 10 NBA defense will quickly find holes in its bucket, dear Liza.
The Wizards should not panic. They can’t afford to panic. (Fans, don’t panic, either… but feel free to vent.) Doing so would steer focus of the ship off course. But, Ernie Grunfeld and Co. must be prepared, and they cannot sit dormant, saying, ‘Welp, this is why we have 15 players.’ This Okafor injury could be extremely serious, or it could be resolved by November. Maybe the creation of a sense of urgency—especially for certain players to step up—before training camp is a good thing. But maybe this is the pulled thread that unravels the whole jersey. Either way, the Wizards must think post-Okafor now (partially since he has one more season on his contract) and cannot be bashful about making a move that adds salary (via trade for Thaddeus Young or Omer Asik, for instance—both are said to be on the market) as long as the returning player is promising enough to, in essence, be another free agent acquisition via trade. Just like Okafor.
There’s a reason why Josh Childress, somewhat replicative of the presences of Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza (if he can resurrect his career) has been invited to training camp. Childress was at least a 3-point threat his early years with the Atlanta Hawks and couple seasons playing in Greece. Per report of the Washington Post’s Michael Lee, the Wizards have also added Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Xavier Silas and D’or Fischer to the training camp roster; only Fischer is a center. Childress could be a low-risk, big-reward find, a la Webster last summer, who could ultimately make an asset like Ariza expendable in a package deal. Question is, timing. Washington wants to avoid a panicked decision, but pride shouldn’t keep necessity out of the conversation. Injuries happen. They always happen. But the uncertainty of the Okafor injury is too much of a red flag to simply ignore with heavy doses of hope. Don’t panic, prepare.