You can argue back and forth about whether Kansas center Joel Embiid is a top-three lock. You can debate about the stress fracture to his back and how it will reflect his stock and NBA outlook.
I've thought about whether Embiid is the No. 1 prospect longer than any grown man ever should.
But there's one thing we tend to forget—one thing that might actually be the most influential factor in determining where Embiid goes in the draft.
And that's who's picking at each spot on the board.
The lottery is bound to play a major role in determining the order in which the prospects are drafted. Each team's general manager is likely to think differently, and each organization has different needs.
If the Cleveland Cavaliers don't get the first pick in the 2013 draft, Anthony Bennett most likely goes No. 6 or No. 7—not No. 1.
Just like last year, there isn't a consensus ranking of the top few prospects. I've heard the No. 1 overall case made for four different guys within the past two weeks.
And unfortunately for Embiid, he has one thing working against him that guys like Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins and Duke forward Jabari Parker don't have to worry about.
All three teams projected to select at the top of the 2014 NBA draft are each invested in promising young players that play the same position as Embiid.
If the season ended today, the Milwaukee Bucks would have the best odds at getting the first pick, the Philadelphia 76ers would have the second-best odds and the Orlando Magic would have the third-best odds. And they each already have centers who've been expected to provide long-term answers at their position.
|Centers on NBA Lottery Favorites|
|Projected Draft Position||Current Center|
|Milwaukee Bucks||No. 1 overall||Larry Sanders|
|Philadelphia 76ers||No. 2 overall||Nerlens Noel|
|Orlando Magic||No. 3 overall||Nikola Vucevic|
The Bucks just signed Larry Sanders to a four-year extension last summer after he finished second in the NBA in blocks while playing just 27 minutes a game. He's missed most of this season with two obscure injuries, including one that didn't even happen on the court, but he'll be making $11 million a year until 2018 (starting next season). Plus, he's an elite interior defender, while Parker and Wiggins both project as terrific scorers on the wing.
Philadelphia traded its All-Star point guard, Jrue Holiday, to land Nerlens Noel and what's likely to be a draft pick around No. 11 overall this June. Noel is already missing his entire rookie year recovering from a torn ACL. Do the Sixers really want to take another center who's suffered a pre-draft injury when they have bigger needs elsewhere and can draft players to fill them?
The Sixers have a glaring hole at the wing and forward positions. And seeing as the team's top two assets (Michael Carter-Williams and Noel), play point guard and center, respectively, Parker and Wiggins would seem like perfect fits right in the middle.
In fact, per ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required), Wiggins has actually been "atop [Philadelphia's] board all year." The Sixers "believe he’d be the perfect complement to Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Thaddeus Young," Ford reports.
Orlando's Nikola Vucevic, who is only 23 years old, is averaging a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double this season. Embiid and Vucevic probably wouldn't be able to play together, meaning the Magic would likely have to trade one of them.
But would Orlando want to go through the trouble of trying to get equal value in a trade for Vucevic? Maybe, but with Parker or Wiggins on the board, you can understand how drafting one of them and keeping Vucevic would seem like a sensible move to make.
It's also not outrageous to think Orlando has its eyes set on Australia's Dante Exum, a dynamite point guard with tremendous upside. The Magic could really use a floor general for the future after passing on Carter-Williams and Trey Burke in last year's draft.
If Parker and Wiggins go No. 1 and No. 2, Exum should absolutely be considered an option for Orlando at No. 3.
At the end of the day, doubling up at center with a guy whose durability is being questioned might not seem like the smartest idea—especially when there will be other terrific options available that are better fits for each specific roster.
And though Embiid's ceiling might still stand the tallest, Wiggins, Parker and Exum will be offering some pretty appealing upside of their own.
Regardless of whether Embiid returns to full strength, general managers now have to ask themselves if this injury was an isolated incident or a sign of things to come. And it's a question they don't have to ask about the other top-prospect candidates.
One scout anonymously said he believed the injury was a "concern for sure," and that medical teams will be doing their research because it could be a "huge issue."
This first-round pick is crucial for Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Orlando. And based on the configuration of their current rosters, along with the injury to Embiid, it certainly seems possible that each team could now have Parker, Wiggins or even Exum ranked higher on their boards.
Of course, it's possible that someone else gets a top-three pick, like the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers. But if the lottery plays out the way the odds say they will and Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Orlando fill out the top three (in any order), Embiid could be vulnerable to a draft-day slide regardless of how his physical results come back.
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