Just when the beginning of the 2014 NBA draft was going to be easy to predict...
Usually, there's a bit of controversy among the top three picks, but we seemed to be heading toward a June 26 announcement that Joel Embiid was coming off the board first, followed by Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins.
Now, Embiid's foot injury has thrown a wrench in those plans, as first reported by Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
To his credit, Embiid, the freshman phenom from Kansas, has stayed optimistic, even if the Cleveland Cavaliers drafting him at No. 1 now seems quite unlikely:
Optimism aside, there are no longer any guarantees.
Embiid, once considered the prohibitive favorite to follow up Anthony Bennett as the NBA draft's top overall selection, now has a major red flag next to his name. Could it scare away more than just the teams selecting at the very beginning of the draft?
What if no lottery teams are willing to take a risk on him? Is that possible?
Over the next week— really even longer than that, as the discussion isn't just going to go away once the Kansas standout is drafted—you're going to hear Embiid compared with quite a few players who have suffered major injuries.
And for good reason.
While Embiid's back injury was concerning enough, this foot malady thrusts his ability to stay healthy into a whole new light.
"More worrisome is that Embiid suffered a second stress fracture in less than a year," wrote Will Carroll, Bleacher Report's sports injuries lead writer, in the wake of the news. "Given how little he has played, there has to be a worry that his body can't handle the stresses of the game. Another, even more concerning possibility is that Embiid has some systemic issue that makes his bones brittle."
The primary concern rests around one simple inquiry.
If Embiid couldn't stay healthy during a shorter season at Kansas while playing against collegiate competition, how is he going to withstand the rigors of an NBA season that lasts 82 games and is played against players that are—as a whole—bigger and stronger than the ones he faced with the Jayhawks?
Injuries are always causes for concern among big men, whose bodies aren't necessarily built to be subjected to such intense physical treatment. In the wake of Greg Oden becoming a huge draft bust, Andrew Bynum's career fizzling out and Brook Lopez failing to stay healthy for the Brooklyn Nets, they're even more concerning.
But it's not as though this is a new problem.
Sam Bowie's career was derailed by injuries to his lower extremities. Yao Ming's tenure in the Association was dramatically shortened. Bill Walton went from superstar to bench fodder in a matter of years when his feet gave him trouble.
The list goes on, and Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix provides more detail:
Yao Ming suffered a stress fracture in the [navicular] bone in 2008 and again in 2009, and it was the primary cause for Yao's forced retirement in 2011. Bill Walton battled fractures of the navicular bone that robbed him of all but 14 games between 1978 and 1982 and ultimately forced him into retirement. Zydrunas Ilgauskas dealt with a navicular fracture early in his career but went on to finish with nine healthy seasons.
However, Mannix goes on to explain that it's not necessarily a death knell.
There are many variables that go into the recovery, none of which are anything but up in the air at this stage. How quickly will he recover? Will there be relapses? Is this solely from overuse?
Hell, we don't even know the exact bone structure of his foot. And as Dr. Mark Adickes explains for ESPN Insider (subscription required), that's reason for a twinge of optimism:
Finally, Yao had extremely high arches in his feet, which, when placed under stress, compressed his navicular bone like a nutcracker. While I have neither examined nor seen the X-rays of Embiid, it is highly unlikely that he has similar anatomy as Yao.
A number of studies have shown successful returns to sport after a navicular fracture. The average return is four months whether surgery is performed or the bone is allowed to heal in a cast with the athlete placed on crutches. Given Yao's troubles, it does not surprise me that Embiid's team has decided to choose surgery in an effort to reassure NBA executives that he will be ready to play by the start of the 2014-15 season.
Although it is a worrisome injury to be sure, given Embiid's age, body type and lack of mileage, I fully expect him to heal well and have a solid NBA career.
Positive expectations or not, there are serious questions now. Questions that could very well knock him outside that group of elite prospects that seemed to be comprised solely of himself, Wiggins and Parker prior to this injury news.
But there's one thing no one questions—his talent.
Should these injury concerns prove to be minor setbacks, some team will land quite the steal.
Not only is Embiid the most talented player in this draft class, even evoking comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, but he's one of the better prospects in years. The combination of his athleticism, defensive ability, shot-blocking habits, footwork on the blocks and smooth touch on mid-range jumpers is just absolutely incredible.
When the back injury was the only medical red flag, Embiid had emerged as the prohibitive favorite to go at No. 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even if general manager David Griffin opted to draft Wiggins or Parker, Embiid surely wasn't going to fall out of the top three.
He was that good.
Actually, he still is that good. There's just a question of how much he'll be able to play and whether his career is going to be dramatically shortened by this devastating blow, one that came just a week prior to the June 26 festivities.
ESPN Insider Chad Ford has been analyzing prospects for a long time. That gives him the ability to look back at the top incoming players since the turn of the century and rank how they stack up, based solely on expectations leading up to the draft, not their performance in the NBA.
Yes, that means guys like Darko Milicic and Greg Oden are going to be featured in the rankings.
It's quite telling that in his list of the 25 best prospects he's scouted since 2000, Embiid is quite high up. Here's the top 10 (subscription required):
- LeBron James, 2003
- Greg Oden, 2007
- Yao Ming, 2002
- Kevin Durant, 2007
- Anthony Davis, 2012
- Darko Milicic, 2003
- Carmelo Anthony, 2003
- Jay Williams, 2002
- Joel Embiid, 2014
- Andrew Wiggins, 2014
That's what teams are looking at passing up on, due to the injury concerns.
He will drop out of the No. 1 spot. Even if the Cavs haven't publicly stated as much, that's practically a guarantee.
But given his talent, he won't fall out of the lottery. Not even close.
Will the Cavaliers draft Embiid at No. 1?
Absolutely not, as stated above. This franchise needs to nail the top pick, making up for the Anthony Bennett gaffe one year prior. Wiggins and Parker are just safer selections at this stage, and both fill the small forward hole that's been kept open for LeBron James in case he decides to return to his hometown team, which seems increasingly unlikely.
Small forward is a need. Center is as well, but not to the same extent. Why fill the latter with the questionable selection when the former can be shored up by following a safer route?
Things get more interesting at No. 2, though.
The Milwaukee Bucks could certainly take a risk on Embiid, even if it's unlikely as well. With Larry Sanders starting to play under his ginormous contract and John Henson still waiting for a legitimate shot to shine in the starting lineup, there are other needs that should be addressed.
A top scorer, for example.
So while Milwaukee's time at the podium will be interesting, it won't be the end of Embiid's draft-day worries.
Could the slide end when the Philadelphia 76ers are on the clock?
Though Tom Moore never specifically says so while writing for The Intelligencer, the exploration of other options by general manager Sam Hinkie makes it clear that Embiid is not a high priority:
If Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie is determined to land Wiggins, who spent one year at Kansas, Embiid’s injury could necessitate trading up via combining picks Nos. 3 and 10 — which he supposedly doesn’t want to do — or packaging No. 3 with a player. Thaddeus Young probably wouldn’t be enough for the Cavs or Bucks and NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams would be too much. It could take No. 3 and Nerlens Noel to get it done.
Hinkie could consider moving down, especially if he targets Vonleh. In addition, he could try to move up from No. 10 if there’s somebody he’s intrigued by at No. 7 or 8 by sending No. 10 and No. 32, which is the first of the Sixers’ five second-rounders.
Pairing Embiid with Noel would work, but it's not as advantageous as adding that wing scorer that Philly so desperately needs.
So let's continue moving down the board.
Despite needing a rim protector, the Orlando Magic finding a franchise point guard is a bigger priority. Marcus Smart or Dante Exum should still be the pick, though the Embiid news makes it more unlikely the mysterious Australian guard will still be on the board at No. 4.
We can look past the Utah Jazz at No. 5, seeing as they have Enes Kanter on the roster and consider Derrick Favors a center as well. Adding Embiid just creates a mess in the frontcourt, and his presence would hinder the potential development of everyone involved, seeing as there'd be a significant dearth of available playing time.
Then come the Boston Celtics.
Right now, GM Danny Ainge has to be sitting at his desk and covering the wood with a pile of drool, as he can't help but salivate over the prospect of Embiid falling to him at No. 6.
"In fact, a source tells CSNNE.com that the Celtics will give some serious thought to potentially moving up in the draft to select him," reports A. Sherrod Blakely.
If the C's are giving "serious thought" to sacrificing assets and moving up in the order after the news of the stress fracture, it's easy to imagine them waiting only a nanosecond to pull the trigger should he fall to No. 6. Boston has shown no compunction when it comes to drafting injured players in the past; Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger can both testify to that.
The prospect of adding a potential superstar is too much to pass up during a rebuilding period. Embiid could be the center the C's have been seeking for quite some time.
But even if Boston does inexplicably look the other way, rolling with Noah Vonleh, Aaron Gordon or another close-to-elite prospect, Embiid still isn't making it all the way through the lottery. Even in a class this deep, the reward greatly outweighs the risk once we move out of the top five.
The Los Angeles Lakers would surely love to take a chance on him, even if he'd make it tougher to complete an immediate rebuild during this offseason. I'm sure the Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Hornets would love to pair him with DeMarcus Cousins and Al Jefferson, respectively.
From this point on, every team would take him. The "best player available" strategy is awfully appealing when the expected No. 1 pick is on the board around the 10th selection of the proceedings.
Will Embiid fall out of the lottery?
Absolutely not. That's about as likely as Kyle Anderson, Zach LaVine and Jordan Adams breaking Kentucky's record for most consecutive players taken from the same school to begin the draft. And seeing as none of those three are guaranteed lotto picks, that's saying something.
Speaking of guaranteed lottery picks, Embiid still qualifies.