If there was ever a window of opportunity for Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker to make their move, now is it.
The back injury to Joel Embiid changes things a slight bit. Many had projected Embiid as the front-runner to go No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft. But after suffering a stress fracture that could potentially knock him out the rest of the postseason, it seems reasonable to drop his status from favorite to contender.
Forget about the recovery timetable—it's the durability factor that might now cause general managers to hesitate on Embiid.
Can he last? Not all big men can, given the weight they carry around.
Though not direct comparisons, nobody wants to be the guy who mistakenly chases the Greg Oden size and upside and passes on that Kevin Durant skill and versatility.
And having failed to make it through the grind of the season, it's only natural to think a pre-draft back injury could trigger a general manager to think twice—especially when there are other sure things on the board.
If anything, it at least gives scouts and NBA decision-makers a reason to start looking elsewhere.
Cue Parker and Wiggins, who will each have the opportunity to move the needle with a little postseason magic.
Just imagine how good it would look for Wiggins if he were to take over for the Jayhawks and power them on a run.
He's flashed almost everything scouts could have asked for this season, from his world-class athleticism to a promising offensive game and lock-down defensive potential. But the only thing he hasn't proven yet is his ability to take control. It's obvious—the No. 1 overall talent is there. Whether or not he can convert it into consistent domination will ultimately determine how far that talent goes.
He's put up some big numbers this season—Wiggins recently hung 41 points on West Virginia with Embiid out, although just about all of them came with his team down double digits. Granted, he nearly pulled his team back in it, but I'm talking about crunch-time buckets to pull ahead or offensive eruptions late in a tight game.
It's not just about the quantity of his production. The timeliness of it plays a role when evaluating his in-game impact.
Wiggins gave us a strong, promising taste in Kansas' first game of the Big 12 tournament, when he scored 30 points against Oklahoma State in an overtime win.
With under three minutes left in a one-point game, Wiggins caught a ridiculous lob above the rim and threw it down for two. A few plays later, he nailed a step-back jumper to tie the game with just over a minute left.
Without Embiid, he's been active and aggressive, something scouts have been wanting to see from him consistently all year long.
Still, individually taking over has been tough to do in Kansas' loaded offense that shares the ball so well. But without Embiid in the lineup, the Jayhawks will need someone to step up and pose as the team's go-to option.
If Wiggins can excel in that role while leading the team on a string of meaningful wins, it could eliminate the one and only question scouts have regarding his makeup and ability.
Parker's barrier to No. 1 is slightly different than Wiggins'. At this point, there probably isn't a more complete prospect in the country than Parker. But without the top-shelf athleticism or the lateral quickness to defend the perimeter, there are questions regarding his upside.
It's not a red flag; rather, a potential reason to value him a spot or two lower.
But at the end of the day, the perceived upside gap between Wiggins/Embiid and Parker should be small enough to close with high-level impact play. If Parker can put Duke on his back and lead it on a run, especially if Wiggins isn't able to do the same for Kansas, it might allow a general manger overlook their differences in upside and instead focus on Parker's ability to win games for his team.
And again, with eyebrows now raised over Embiid's durability, Parker's pro-ready game and safe NBA outlook might appear even more attractive to teams at the top that can't afford any risk—especially considering the three worst teams in the league record-wise—Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic—all have centers and a need for a scoring wing.
The injury to Embiid doesn't kill his chances of going No. 1 overall, but it opens the door to Parker and Wiggins to pass him on draft boards.
I'm actually picturing Embiid stuck at a pit stop, while his challengers are turning the corner just ahead of the final straightaway stretch.
Wiggins and Parker have each made strong pitches this season as No. 1 overall candidates. And now with Embiid on the shelf and the allure surrounding him slightly diminished, this postseason gives them the chance to try and close the deal.
"It's a concern for sure," one scout told me regarding Embiid's back injury. "Every team is going to have their medical team do extensive research because it could be a huge issue."
These medical teams are going to put Embiid under the ultimate microscope at the combine and during the weeks leading up to the draft. Even if this particular injury is expected to heal prior to June, nobody is going to take chances when it comes to back trouble. We recently saw Jared Sullinger take a deep plunge down the board after doctors revealed his back wasn't in tip-top shape.
It's really tough to say what Embiid's stock will look like until Wiggins' and Parkers' postseasons are over and Embiid's physical results come back following the healing process. Because they're all essentially tied together.
|2014 NBA Draft Big Board|
|7||Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State||PG/SG||Sophomore|
|8||Gary Harris||Michigan State||SG||Sophomore|
|19||T.J. Warren||North Carolina State||SF||Sophomore|
|21||P.J. Hairston||Texas Legends||SG||Junior|
|22||Adreian Payne||Michigan State||PF||Senior|
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, 6'4", PG/SG, Sophomore
We should have all seen this coming—since returning from that three-game suspension for shoving a fan in the stands, Smart is averaging 19.5 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 boards and 4.6 steals with 13 three-pointers on 38 percent shooting from deep.
He's been an animal on defense and a heads-up passer on offense. He's taking better shots, and he's making more of them.
Smart looks as determined and as locked in as he's been all year. His Cowboys are certainly not a team others will want to face this postseason.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan, 6'6", SG, Sophomore
Stauskas is in the zone right now, averaging over 21 points a game over his last five. He nailed 12-of-17 three-pointers combined in back-to-back games against Illinois and Minnesota. Eight of his 21 points against Indiana came at the line.
A deadly three-point shooter who's now dangerous off the dribble? Where do I sign up?
Stauskas has really evolved into one of the tougher covers in the country. And given his 6'6" size, next-level athleticism and high basketball IQ, his NBA outlook seems awfully promising.
Jordan Clarkson, Missouri, 6'5", PG/SG, Junior
Clarkson has started to fall off a bit after a smoking hot start to year. He's hit just four of his last 25 three-point attempts, and he hasn't shot above 39 percent from the floor in any of his last six games.
Missouri even stopped running some of its offense through Clarkson at the point.
Clarkson is a scoring point guard who can't shoot, though at 6'5" with a handle and a terrific attack game, he's going to get some NBA looks.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, 7'0", C, Sophomore
Only once since February 8 has Cauley-Stein finished with double-digit rebounds in a game. He's only scored in double digits twice since January 14. In his last three games, Cauley-Stein is averaging three points and 4.3 boards in 23 minutes.
But at this stage, it's almost pointless to start picking apart his box scores. It's pretty obvious how limited he is offensively. And it's not that he doesn't play hard or his motor dies out—without much basketball skill, Cauley-Stein has a tough time asserting himself into games.
At the end of the day, scouts will look at Cauley-Stein and see a 7'0", 244-pound athletic specimen, and that counts for something. But given the minimal offensive improvement he's shown from one year to the next, don't expect teams to reach.
Dario Saric, Cibona, 6'10", PF, 1994
Saric and his father made some waves overseas with some recent comments.
Sportando reported that Anadolu Efes Istanbul is prepared to offer Saric a five-year (or possibly a three-year) contract worth €6M with an NBA out starting in June 2016.
“I will not decide anything until the end of the season,” Saric said via Emiliano Carchia of Sportando. “In the summer I will determine my future. For my development the best is to stay in Europe but we’ll see what happens. I don’t even have an agent right now. I will talk with my family but I will make the final decision."
His father told 24Sata that Dario should play in Europe for two more seasons.
Saric can enter the draft and opt to remain overseas, but that may cause NBA teams to hesitate. He also mysteriously pulled out of the 2013 draft last second, and his indecisiveness might be starting to turn some people off.
Considering Saric leads the Adriatic League in both scoring and rebounding, this is certainly a storyline to keep an eye on moving forward.
- North Carolina State's T.J. Warren has been on another planet lately, averaging 29 points over his last 12 games. And he's shot 50 percent or better from the floor in 11 of them. But Warren isn't a standout athlete, and he's shooting 30 percent from downtown on the year. Still, it will be interesting to see how teams view his weaknesses versus his ridiculous college production. Because there isn't a team in the ACC that has been able to keep him from scoring.
- Utah's Delon Wright has been terrific all year, but despite his 15.7-point, 6.8-rebound, 5.2-assist averages, it might actually be his defense that really separates him. He's ranked No. 1 in country in defensive win shares. As a point guard, Wright is averaging 1.3 blocks and 2.5 steals a game. I'm not sure if Wright comes out this year, but if he doesn't, he'll return to Utah as an under-the-radar first-round prospect.
- Washington's C.J. Wilcox might be done at the college level, but I wouldn't bet against him making an NBA impact. Wilcox made 301 three-pointers in four years at Washington. And at 6'5" with a clean, quick release, he has the tools and skill set to thrive in a speciality role in the pros.
- Jerami Grant has been a difference-maker for Syracuse. And at 6'8" with extreme athleticism and length, his NBA potential stands out like a sore thumb. But Grant hasn't hit a three-pointer all season, and at 210 pounds without a post game, he's not your traditional power forward. Grant certainly looks the part of an NBA player, but he's going to need to develop a skill set for one of the two forward positions.