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NBA Draft Notebook: Is Joel Embiid Worth Taking No. 1 Overall?

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Jonathan WassermanNBA Lead WriterJanuary 12, 2017

Just a month ago, Kansas center Joel Embiid was favored by many to go No. 1 in this year's NBA draft. 

And it's now being reported he'll officially be declaring for it, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

Unfortunately, Embiid was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back just prior to the Big 12 tournament. And though it's an injury expected to have short-term effects and a recovery period measured by weeks, there seems to be a natural sense of fear setting in among anyone with an opinion on the situation—a fear tied to drafting a big man with an injury history at No. 1 overall when there are other options to choose from that each offer similar All-Star upside. 

Whoever wins the lottery will have an important question to ponder: Is Embiid's upside worth the risk he presents at No. 1 overall, even if it means acquiring him requires passing on Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker?

The potential reward that Embiid is offering certainly justifies No. 1 overall value. In terms of impact, I'm not sure anyone made a bigger, more consistent one than Embiid did during the year. He's taken over games at both ends of the floor without even needing the ball in his hands. And he's done it on a game-to-game basis.

Just look what happened to Kansas when he left the lineup: The Jayhawks won three and lost three, with those losses coming to West Virginia, Iowa State and Stanford. 

WACO, TX - FEBRUARY 04: Joel Embiid #21 of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots the ball over the Baylor Bears on February 4, 2014 at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

But we know about Embiid's towering ceiling by now. Standing 7'0" with a 250-pound frame and a massive 7'5" wingspan, he has the physical tools to match an incredibly advanced skill set as a post scorer and rim protector.

At this point, it's not about determining whether Embiid has the talent—it's assessing the risk attached to him relative to what the other prospects on the board are offering. 

And there haven't been any reports or indications that suggest Embiid's injury is one that's expected to linger or cause long-term concerns.

We saw Andre Drummond suffer the same injury last year, only for him to return to his dominant self following the recovery. Emeka Okafor was also diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back during his final conference tournament at Connecticut back in 2004. It didn't stop the Charlotte Bobcats from taking him No. 2 in the draft (behind Dwight Howard), and it didn't stop Okafor from averaging 15 points and nearly 11 boards as a rookie.

Let's just say the results on Embiid's physical and ailing back come back clean, and doctors declare him 100 percent—just like he was when he terrorized opponents in January.

Is there still risk associated with drafting him at No. 1? 

It's not as if he's had a track record of injuries or medical issues. If Embiid was No. 1 on your board before the stress fracture was discovered, there's really no reason he should be dropped unless doctors find that injury might be a little more complicated than originally anticipated. 

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 18:  Joel Embiid #21 of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts after scoring during the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Allen Fieldhouse on January 18, 2014 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Still, I could understand how a general manager would feel hesitant on Embiid, given the fear that comes with back injuries—especially when special prospects like Parker, Wiggins and even Australia's Dante Exum will be available. But I can also understand why a team might look at Embiid at full strength and conclude he's the most talented prospect on the planet. 

If you ask me, Embiid is worth taking with the first pick in the 2014 draft—but only by the right team.

This year's class isn't like 2011's, when it was Anthony Davis and everyone else. There are multiple No. 1 overall candidates who've each built solid cases throughout the year. Team and organizational fit should be a huge factor in determining who the best option is for each franchise. 

Embiid wouldn't be worth it to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 1 overall, considering they just traded for another young center in Nerlens Noel, not to mention their desperate need for a scoring wing or forward. Even if the Sixers did have Embiid atop their rankings, the gap between him and Wiggins or Parker isn't big enough to justify doubling up on a position (center) and passing on a need (small or power forward). 

It's the same deal for the Orlando Magic, who also have a good-looking center in Nikola Vucevic, while they share a similar need for a scorer at the 3 or 4 positions. 

And for teams like these, there just happen to be some very attractive forward prospects available who are offering similar upside to Embiid without presenting much risk at all. 

Jan 18, 2014; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) dunks the ball against Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Markel Brown (22) in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas won 80-78. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The direction and rebuilding blueprint for each franchise should also factor in. A team like the Los Angeles Lakers, who might be looking for a more NBA-ready contributor like Parker, probably won't think Embiid is worth waiting around for, given the lengthier learning curve that's usually associated with big men.

On the other hand, Embiid should be worth taking if you're a team like the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics—teams looking at longer rebuilding plans. The Celtics or Bucks should have the luxury of being able to pass on NBA readiness for the top long-term talent and highest ceiling in the field. 

For these teams, there's just no rush to find the 2015 Rookie of the Year if it means passing on the prospect with the most future potential. 

If the injury to Embiid never happened, you wonder if we're even having this conversation, given Wiggins' no-show in Kansas' round of 32 loss to Stanford and Parker's 4-of-14 dud in Duke's humiliating round of 64 loss to Mercer. 

Though terrific NBA prospects, Wiggins and Parker aren't exactly flawless. They each have questions to answer regarding their games and basketball skills.

However, there really isn't much to question about Embiid's game. Despite having just three years of experience playing organized ball, he's evolved into an exceptionally skilled offensive player and game-changing defensive anchor.  

Embiid has eye-opening footwork with a scoring arsenal consisting of righty and lefty jump hooks, spin moves, dream shakes, up-and-unders and fadeaways. He's even shown touch in the mid-range and a decent stroke from the line (68.5 percent).


Defensively, what more can you ask for from an individual player? He offers the type of overwhelming interior presence that opposing coaches must game-plan around. Embiid averaged 4.5 blocks per 40 minutes, and believe me, if there was a stat for altering shots, he'd be at the top of the ranks. 

And there are certainly no questions regarding his character, passion or work ethic. This kid is a competitor who plays with fire and contagious intensity. 

The only question is if he can hold up physically, and if he's a fit for that lucky team that wins the 2014 lottery. 

At full strength, Embiid is worth the No. 1 pick. It just depends on which franchise gets it. 

2014 NBA Draft Big Board
RankProspectSchool/CountryPositionYear
1Joel EmbiidKansasCFreshman
2Andrew WigginsKansasSFFreshman
3Jabari ParkerDukeSF/PFFreshman
4Dante ExumAustraliaPG/SG1995
5Noah VonlehIndianaPFFreshman
6Julius RandleKentuckyPFFreshman
7Marcus SmartOklahoma StatePG/SGSophomore
8Aaron GordonArizonaSF/PFFreshman
9Tyler EnnisSyracusePGFreshman
10Willie Cauley-SteinKentuckyCSophomore
11Gary HarrisMichigan StateSGSophomore
12Nik StauskasMichiganSGSophomore
13Doug McDermottCreightonSFSenior
14Rodney HoodDukeSFSophomore
15Zach LaVineUCLAPG/SGFreshman
16Clint CapelaSwitzerlanPF1994
17Mario HezonjaCroatiaSG/SF1995
18Adreian PayneMichigan StatePFSenior
19Jusuf NurkicBosniaC1994
20Cleanthony EarlyWichita StateSFSenior
21Rondae Hollis-JeffersonArizonaSFFreshman
22Montrezl HarrellLouisvillePFSophomore
23T.J. WarrenNorth Carolina StateSFSophomore
24Kyle AndersonUCLAPG/SFSophomore
25James YoungKentuckySG/SFFreshman
26Jerami GrantSyracuseSF/PFSophomore
27K.J. McDanielsClemsonSFJunior
28P.J. HairstonTexas Legends (D-League)SG1992
29Jordan AdamsUCLASGSophomore
30C.J. WilcoxWashingtonSGSenior
Bleacher Report

 

Heatin' Up

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State, 6'8", SF, Senior

Despite the loss, Early put on a show against Kentucky's NBA-caliber front line in the round of 32. He went off for 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, scoring in a variety of ways. He hit four of six from downtown, finished a number of plays in the open floor and got to the rack off the dribble in the half court. 

At 6'8" with smooth athleticism, Early certainly looks the part of an NBA wing. This year, he led the Shockers in scoring while shooting 37.5 percent from downtown.

I'm expecting his eye-opening performance against Kentucky to really propel him up draft boards into the first-round or late-lottery conversation. 

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

 

Jordan Adams, UCLA, 6'5", SG, Sophomore

Adams has found his groove at just the right time for UCLA. He's been huge in postseason play, having gone for 19 points, four boards and four assists in a win over Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament championship game, followed by a 21-8-4 line in the NCAA tournament round of 64 and a 19-5-3 line in the round of 32. 

At 6'5" with great strength and offensive instincts, Adams is one of those guards who just knows how to get himself buckets. He's even raised his three-point percentage up to 36.2 percent this season, and he's tied for fourth in the country in steals per game. 

If Adams chooses to declare for this June's draft, consider him a fringe first-round option. 

 

Coolin' Off

Rodney Hood, Duke, 6'8", SF, Sophomore

Hood was pretty disappointing in Duke's humiliating loss to Mercer in the NCAA tournament's round of 64. He finished with just 2-of-10 shooting for six points, and he got roasted on defense before fouling out late in the game. 

With that 6'8" size and beautiful lefty jumper, Hood has an NBA-ready skill set, but he projects poorly as a defender and his upside is limited. I'd say it's safe to label Hood as a mid-to-late first-round option. 

Feb 18, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Rodney Hood (5) shoots over Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets forward Quinton Stephens (12) in the second half at Hank McCamish Pavilion. Duke won 68-51. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

 

Zach LaVine, UCLA, 6'5", SG, Freshman

LaVine has just six points over his last four games. There's really not much else to say other than he's someone who could really use an extra year in school to develop and fine-tune his game. 

His minutes have been limited, as has his role within the offense. It's not as if he's been off—LaVine hasn't taken more than five shots in any of those four games. But without the reps or the ability to fully showcase his game, he could have a tough time generating lottery interest this June.

 

Updated Abroad

Dario Saric, Cibona, 6'10", SF/PF, 1994

The big news abroad revolves around the future of Croatian star Dario Saric, who, according to ESPN's Chad Ford, is "highly unlikely" (subscription required) to enter the 2014 draft with Efes Pilsen ready to pay him $8.27 million over the next three years.

Saric, who many had projected as a lottery pick this year, is currently leading the Adriatic League in scoring and rebounding. 

If the news is true that he won't be participating in this year's draft, it would be a blow to the class and those teams selecting in the lottery. 

 

Mouhammadou Jaiteh, Nanterre, 6'11", C, 1994

According to Shams Charania of RealGM.com, Jaiteh will be declaring for the draft and "gauge feedback to frame a decision on whether to stay." International prospects are allowed to withdraw at a much later date than American prospects, and if it turns out he's not hearing what he wants to hear from NBA evaluators, he could still have the option to withdraw and head back to France next year. 

Jaiteh is an absolute monster physically—at 6'11", 249 pounds with a 7'4" wingspan, he's a space-eater in the paint, where he finishes, rebounds and protects the rim. Though not the most skilled prospect, his physical tools alone are worth targeting late in the first or anywhere in the second round.  

 

Fourth-Quarter Thoughts

  • Syracuse announced that point guard Tyler Ennis will be declaring for the 2014 draft. “I’d like to thank Coach Boeheim, the coaching staff, my teammates and the amazing fans of Syracuse for the opportunity to play at a great university like Syracuse,” Ennis said (via SNY.tv's Adam Zagoria). “I feel this experience has helped prepare me to fulfill my lifelong dreamto play in the NBA.” Ennis was terrific for the Orange this season, and though he might not be NBA-ready, you'd like to think his decision to go is tied to the NBA feedback he'd been hearing. I wouldn't be surprised to see a point-guard-needy team trade up and grab him, the way the Utah Jazz did with Trey Burke last year.
  • Kansas freshman Wayne Selden announced he'll be returning for his sophomore year, a wise decision for a number of different reasons. For one, he wasn't able to fully showcase his game playing among so many weapons in an offense that shares the ball. Secondly, he'll have a much bigger role as a sophomore, where his opportunities will increase. And lastly, he's just not ready for next-level action. Selden should have a good shot at the lottery next season if he shows some improvement with regard to his skill set and consistency. 
  • North Carolina State's T.J. Warren has decided to enter the NBA draft, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. It was the obvious move, after he averaged over 24 points in a spectacular individual season for the Wolfpack. He's one of the most unique prospects in the field, given his high-volume production and unorthodox style of play. Warren scored a ton of points without standout athleticism or a three-point shot. He probably won't turn many heads during workouts or the NBA combine, but someone will grab Warren in the mid-first round based on his ridiculous college production and NBA size for the wing. 

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