Emeka Okafor starting comeback with Sixers

Emeka Okafor feels this is the right time.

He’s been out of the league for four years, but he isn’t ready to let go of basketball just yet.

Drafted No. 2 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats, the 2004-05 rookie of the year is just three days shy of 35. A herniated disc in the center’s neck has kept him sidelined since 2013. Surgery was originally recommended for the injury, but he opted to go for “the natural path” — physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, and a lot of rest.

“Being back in this environment, being back in the NBA umbrella, with the guys, the team, talking to the press, just feels so good,” Okafor said Monday. “It feels like putting on a suit that’s always been the right fit, or your favorite pair of jeans, however you want to put it. It just feels very, very natural.”

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Why, if something feels so right, would he wait so long to come back? The timing wasn’t right and he wanted to continue rehabbing in a way that would promote longevity.

“Making sure I was healthy and strong and ready to come back and play the way I wanted to play,” Okafor said.

When his wife was pregnant, he put off returning to the NBA one more year. Then, after working out with a number of teams this summer he settled on the Sixers because of what he says was a gut feeling.

“The hardest part,” Okafor said, “has been the perception.”

The perception is this: This season he will be a 35-year-old center who is four years removed from competitive basketball, and concerns come with that. Will he be able to keep up? Is he conditioned for an 82-game schedule? Can he make a difference on a team?

“When you step out [of the NBA], you just have to prove that much more,” Okafor said. “The scrutiny is a little tougher, but it is what it is.”

There is no doubt in Okafor’s mind that he can be an asset to an NBA team. He averaged 12.3 points and 9.9 rebounds through nine NBA seasons. And, after the first day of Sixers training camp, he continued to sound hopeful for the future.

“I feel awesome,” Okafor said Tuesday. “I feel like I can easily contribute, my body feels great, and my timing is on.”

It’s likely that with his distant cousin Jahlil Okafor not cleared for full action, and Joel Embiid in the same boat, Okafor will be utilized in preseason as the others get ready to return. Making the Sixers’ regular-season roster is a long shot at best.

But the opportunity is there to impress a team, any team, so he can get back to what feels so natural.

Okafor said he isn’t trying to concern himself with the specifics of the Sixers’ roster. Instead, he wants to focus on getting better and concentrate on the ways he can stand out.

“I want to just continue to make a good impression and see where things go,” Okafor said. “I’m just happy to be in a camp environment and in the NBA environment. This is awesome, so just continue to build from here.”