The Charlotte Bobcats ended a year of uncertainty with top rebounder and shot blocker Emeka Okafor on Tuesday by coming to terms on a six-year, $72 million deal with the restricted free agent.
The move comes a year after Okafor turned down a contract for similar money and assures new coach Larry Brown will have the team's top inside presence when he begins his record ninth NBA coaching job in the fall.
"It was very important for us to get a deal done," general manager Rod Higgins said. "He creates a sense of security around the basket for us. He's a guy that I think his skills are still developing in a lot of ways. Having Larry as our head coach now, Emeka will benefit having a great coach to teach him."
Higgins confirmed the deal Tuesday morning after ESPN.com first reported late Monday that the two sides were close to an agreement. Higgins said Okafor should sign the deal in the next few days.
Okafor was the second overall pick in 2004 and the expansion Bobcats' first draft pick. He turned down Charlotte's offer of $12 million a year last year, but settled on the same figure a year later.
Few other teams have enough salary-cap space to offer restricted free agents big money. Many, including Andre Iguodala of Philadelphia, Josh Smith of Atlanta and Luol Deng of Chicago, remain unsigned.
Okafor could have accepted a one-year qualifying offer worth about $7.1 million and became an unrestricted free agent next year, meaning the Bobcats would get nothing in return if he left. But Okafor decided to accept the security of a long-term contract after Charlotte sweetened its offer.
Okafor's deal is similar to contracts given this offseason to big men Andrew Bogut of Milwaukee and Andris Biedrins of Golden State. But it marks the biggest player contract owner Bob Johnson has agreed to pay since he bought the team.
"It's unfortunate when people criticize our ownership. Bob has been very supportive of what we want to do," Higgins said. "Last year we brought in Jason Richardson and signed (Gerald) Wallace. We're continuing to bring in very good talent. Securing Emeka just shows that our ownership and Bob are committed."
Okafor averaged 13.8 points and 10.7 rebounds a game last season, the fourth consecutive year he's averaged a double-double. Okafor also led the team in blocked shots (1.7 per game) and field-goal percentage (53.5). Brown had said it was critical they retain Okafor for his defense and inside presence on a team that struggled to rebound last season.
Okafor said during the last week of the regular season that he wanted to remain a Bobcat, but he clearly had a strained relationship with coach Sam Vincent. Managing partner Michael Jordan fired Vincent after Charlotte finished 32-50 in his only season.
Brown coached Okafor, but played him little, on the disappointing bronze-medal United States Olympic team in 2004.
Okafor was plagued by a chronic ankle injury that limited him to 26 games in the 2005-06 season. But he played in 67 games the following year and all 82 last season.
While his offensive skills don't compare favorably to Orlando's Dwight Howard, taken one spot ahead of Okafor in the draft, Higgins said Okafor's defense is invaluable to the Bobcats.
"Emeka played in 82 games last year and played at a high level," Higgins said. "We felt we needed to have him, with his inside presence."