Cleveland Cavaliers Can't Afford to Pass Up Joel Embiid with No. 1 Draft Pick

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 22, 2014

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

The basketball gods have a thing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Not only did they deliver the franchise an against-all-odds top selection for the third time in four years; they did so in a year with a cornerstone big man sitting at the top of all draft boards. (Or all the ones that got it right, at least).

There is no three-man race to the No. 1 spot. Kansas freshman phenom Joel Embiid is in a class of his own, the rarest of breeds in a league littered with larger-than-life specimens.

There will be debates about which player belongs at the top of the list, whether Embiid can hold off his college teammate Andrew Wiggins or Duke standout Jabari Parker. Questions surrounding Embiid's health—a stress fracture in his back sidelined him for the Jayhawks' last six games—will make it sound as if he's in danger of losing his grip on the top spot or even plummeting down the draft board:

It all makes for great theater. Isn't that all the draft really is?

NEW YORK - MAY 20: NBA Draft Prospects Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart,  Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Joel Embiid, Noah Vonleh, and Doug McDermott poses for a photo during to the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery on May 20, 2014 at the ABC News' 'Good Morning America' Ti
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Like so many sources of drama in sports, though, this process isn't nearly as entertaining as it seems. The Cavs don't have choices—there's a single call to be made. Embiid is the obvious pick for Cleveland, as he would have been had any other team claimed the winning lottery ticket.

"Joel Embiid is going to be the first pick of the 2014 draft," Grantland's Bill Simmons wrote prior to Tuesday's lottery. "Don't let anyone tell you differently...Unless Embiid's pre-draft MRI reveals a career-threatening back issue (doubtful), NOBODY is passing on a franchise center."

Embiid has once-in-a-generation-type of appeal, at a position that no longer produces such prospects.

He's a unique blend of incredibly raw and supremely skilled. He's a highly instinctive player in a sport he's still learning how to play.

As Bleacher Report's Jason King explained, Embiid is a tantalizing prospect now with so much room to grow:

I can’t recall a 7-footer in the last decade who can match Embiid’s footwork, soft hands, gait and shooting touch—not to mention his shot-blocking ability, which improved dramatically throughout the season. And I realize this has been said countless times, but he has only been playing basketball for three years. He’s just getting started.

Embiid is the type of talent who can keep a team out of the lottery. He's the impact force Cleveland thought it was getting last summer.

"We can make a long run for Cleveland," Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said after winning the 2013 lottery, via Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer. "All of us fans paid for it for three years here, and hopefully that pain will be rewarded."

Then Cleveland invested the top pick in Anthony Bennett, his surgically repaired shoulder and late-night pizza cravings.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 27:  Anthony Bennett of UNLV poses for a photo with NBA Commissioner David Stern after Bennett was drafted #1 overall in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2013 NBA Draft at Barclays Center on June 27, 2013 in in the
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Cavs' pain wasn't rewarded, it was magnified. Bennett was a disaster, and that's being generous. He managed just 4.2 points on 35.6 percent shooting, getting buried by a very forgettable rookie class in the process:

Cleveland has yet to get that taste out of its mouth. Expect it to linger for years.

The problem is those memories are so dark and that pain is so real that the Cavs may now be allowing it to influence their decision in this draft.

"A league official familiar with the Cavs' thinking then told me they're leaning toward Embiid's teammate, Andrew Wiggins, leery about taking another player recovering from injury," Mark Heisler of Forbes wrote.

This despite the fact that, as sources told's Jeff Goodman, Embiid sits "at the top" of Cleveland's draft board.

Feb 22, 2014; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) celebrates after scoring in the first half against the Texas Longhorns at Allen Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavaliers might bypass the best-player-available option because of how poorly things went with Bennett. If Cleveland thinks Bennett and Embiid have similar risk-reward potential that would help explain why this franchise continually finds itself in the lottery.

Bennett came into the league as a man without a position or even a go-to talent. Too small for the post and too slow for the perimeter, his motor was questioned along with his talent.

With Embiid, there's one question: How's the back? According to him, via Comcast SportsNet's A. Sherrod Blakely, it's fine:

Team doctors will surely want to see for themselves, but what might they find that keeps Embiid out of the No. 1 spot? Does such an injury even exist?

He's so insanely gifted already, it's tempting to just say no, nothing in his medical records should scare off a suitor.

"His ceiling is Hakeem Olajuwon," one general manager told Heisler. "His basement is Serge Ibaka."

The Olajuwon comparison should be blasphemous. The Hall of Famer and two-time champion was arguably the most gifted big man in NBA history.

That's a grossly premature prediction for someone with all of three years of organized basketball in their background, right? If it is a mistake, though, why does every one keep making it?

Embiid's college coach, Bill Self, called him, "a young Hakeem Olajuwon," via Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City StarEmbiid's NBA comparison on Hakeem Olajuwon/Tim Duncan (!). CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb saw the same Olajuwon resemblance:

It was hard not to as Embiid was bringing the "Dream Shake" back.

The likeness didn't appear by accident.

"When I started playing basketball, my coach back in Cameroon the first day he gave me a video of Hakeem Olajuwon," Embiid told Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News. "He told me to watch it every day. After practice, after every practice, I’d watch every move he did — and I’d just keep doing that."

The similarities between the two are striking.

Both are natives of Africa, Embiid from Cameroon and Olajuwon hailing from Nigeria. Both got their early sports fixes on the soccer pitch, then tried organized hoops for the first time in their mid-teens (age 16 for Embiid, 15 for Olajuwon). Both stand 7'0" tall, both tip the scales at 250 pounds.

Embiid, like his predecessor, flashes a gymnast's balance and the footwork of a dancer, both of which defy his size and lack of experience.

"He moves like a 6-footer with his feet," Self told King. "He can move in a way that very few guys in the past have been able to move. There's a skill set there that very few 7-footers have."

That combination of size and mobility impacts both sides of the floor.

The Cavs don't have an impact big at either end.

Only nine teams averaged fewer restricted-area field-goal attempts last season (25.2 per game), and no one converted those looks at a worse rate than Cleveland (56.1 percent). The Cavs' 62.8 restricted-area field-goal percentage against was tied for sixth worst in the NBA. They had one player among the league's top-60 shot blockers (Spencer Hawes, tied for 22nd with 1.2 per game), and he's now an unrestricted free agent.

Embiid could be Cleveland's desperately need interior scorer and rim protector all in one.

His health risks are real.

Should his career be defined by injuries and either Parker or Wiggins (or both) go on to have historically significant ones, the Cavaliers could find themselves being the next Portland Trail Blazers (Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan; Greg Oden over Kevin Durant).

Flip that scenario around, though.

What if the Cavs look to fill an area of need on the wing with Parker or Wiggins and Embiid goes on to star somewhere else? How would that make Cleveland look?

No one knows, because no one passes on the potential cornerstone big man.

Think about the transcendent talents that have dominated the NBA paint over the last few decades: Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Embiid's favorite, Olajuwon. What, besides historically significant stat sheets, do these players have in common? They were all No. 1 picks.

Embiid is a long way from being included among those greats, but that's how high his ceiling extends. Wiggins and Parker might be fine talents in their own rights, but the NBA delivers athletic wings and scoring forwards by the busloads.

Generational bigs, though? Those are as rare as they sound.

Even if Embiid falls short of Hall of Fame status, he's already built to dominate the low block from day one.

"We're not just talking about a raw 7-footer—Embiid is crazy skilled with post moves for days, from jump hooks and dream shakes to up-and-unders and spin moves," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "Defensively, he has the ability to change a game by shrinking the rim he's defending."

Embiid is the reason draft lotteries are held, the justification for tanking a season, even if the Cavs didn't need to go that route.

Cleveland risked it all on Bennett last season and lost. Using this selection on anyone other than Embiid would be the same type of gamble.


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