Conventional wisdom and mock draft consensus alike once held that the top three picks of the 2014 NBA draft were more or less set. Some combination of Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker would land among those three selections.
That's no longer a given.
After surprising the hoops world by selecting Dion Waiters at No. 4 in 2012 and Anthony Bennett at No. 1 in 2013, nothing involving the Cleveland Cavaliers is a given. With the organization set to make the No. 1 overall selection again this summer, another shocker would no doubt produce ripple effects that would shake up the entire draft.
Our predictive powers are limited by a number of variables. Chief among them is the fact that we can never be entirely sure about a club's thought process. As important as talent and track records are to the equation, so too are more intangible factors—like how well a prospect would fit into a team's culture.
With those cultures often still taking shape among the league's rebuilding class, sometimes those kind of considerations take on increased importance.
Without sitting in on interviews and being a party to the vast amount of internal research each team conducts, our projections are imperfect.
Reports from those in the know aren't always much better, but one such report has called the Embiid-Wiggins-Parker triad into question.
The Sporting News' Sean Deveney reports that, "...one source said. '(Dante Exum) is a real option for (the Milwaukee Bucks), because of the size and the upside.'"
Per Deveney, the source also said, "If Exum is as good as they think he will be, they’d pull the trigger."
Of course, Milwaukee owns the No. 2 overall selection in the draft. Selecting Exum would change everything, ensuring that one of Embiid, Wiggins or Parker falls to the Orlando Magic at No. 4. Many mock drafts currently have Exum going to the Magic at that spot.
The Bucks are something of a wild card.
The franchise needs star talent one way or another. There's no single position of need that trumps all others. The question is who has the upside to become a legitimate superstar. Exum's ability to make plays with his 6'6" size has drawn obvious comparisons to Philadelphia's Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams.
Exum could turn out even better in the long term. He's athletic and has a penchant for scoring and distributing alike, the perfect combo-guard with the size to defend multiple positions.
Being that there's no law requiring Milwaukee to take one of this draft's "Big Three," anything is possible at the No. 2 spot.
It's worth noting that despite his report, Deveney went on to clarify that, "we’re sticking with Milwaukee picking one of the Big Three — Wiggins, Jabari Parker or, in this case, Embiid."
But again, there are no guarantees—especially if there are any concerns over Embiid's health. If Wiggins is off the board when Milwaukee picks, Exum may be the next best bet in terms of potential star power. Besides, Embiid might be redundant with Larry Sanders—a center who's owed $44 million over the course of the next four seasons—on the books.
Embiid's status could constitute a curveball in this draft in its own right. ESPN Cleveland radio host Tony Rizzo reported that Cleveland could pass on Embiid due to health concerns:
If there's anything to that, it could lead to something of a mini-slide for Embiid. It's hard to see him falling out of the top five picks given his elite ceiling, but he could certainly change the thinking of Cleveland, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Injury risks can do serious damage to a prospect's perceived value, and for obvious reasons.
No one wants to draft the next Greg Oden.
But there are separate reports indicating that Cleveland is far less worried about Embiid. The New-Herald's Bob Finnan writes, "News is starting to trickle out that Embiid’s back checked out fine in the medical testing done by the Cavs. Many around the league think if that’s the case, the Cavs are going to have a difficult time not drafting him at No. 1."
Sheridan Hoops' Joe Kotoch concurs on this point:
According to my sources, the Cavs came away comfortable with Embiid’s back and have not seen any red flags as it relates to that issue shortening his career. It is a consensus from talking to those around the NBA that the Cavs should select Embiid, if healthy, because finding a center of his caliber with so much untapped potential could be franchise altering when paired with Kyrie Irving and the young nucleus they have assembled.
Suffice it to say, this is the problem with putting too much credence into any one source: sometimes they arrive at completely different conclusions.
Another consideration, per Finnan, is the possibility that Cleveland trades the No. 1 pick: "One rumor floating around is the Sixers offering their No. 3 overall pick and forward Thaddeus Young to the Cavs for the first overall selection. The Sixers are supposedly enamored by Wiggins. In that scenario, if true, the Cavs would come away with Young and probably Parker."
Such a deal wouldn't necessarily change the order in which players are taken—it could simply alter who's taking them.
But such possibilities speak to the unknowns here. They're persistent, these unknowns.
Meanwhile, the Cavs could be thinking about taking someone out of left field, Exum or otherwise. Cleveland has young talent at just about every position, including point guard Kyrie Irving, Waiters at shooting guard and Bennett at forward. Though Cleveland certainly doesn't have a young big of Embiid's caliber, it does have a team option worth $9.8 million for Anderson Varejao.
The club could also re-sign center Spencer Hawes.
Those certainly aren't reasons not to take Embiid, but they do mean that drafting a center isn't necessarily an emergency acquisition.
Then there's Philly.
If Embiid and Wiggins are both off the board, is it really so automatic that Parker goes to the Sixers at No. 3?
Exum might seem like too much of a carbon-copy to pair with Carter-Williams—but then again, when has a team ever been worried about having too many dynamic playmakers? The Sixers need help on the wing, and Exum may fit the profile. He's less of a natural fit than Wiggins, perhaps, but we're assuming Wiggins has been taken already.
So Exum is an X-factor in this draft. The Australian could be intriguing enough to shake things up in the early stages, potentially leading to a slide for either Embiid or Parker—Wiggins seems to be a lock for one of the top three spots, regardless.
The lesson to take away from it all? Don't be late to the draft. It could be interesting from the outset.