Why Joel Embiid Is Still Worth a Top-5 Pick in the 2014 NBA Draft

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2014

Feb 8, 2014; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) warms up before the game against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Allen Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

When Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that prized NBA draft prospect Joel Embiid suffered a stress fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot, an earthquake rocked the 2014 lottery. A swarm of questions and (valid) concerns immediately poured from every corner of the basketball world.

How serious is the injury? When will he be back on the court? Is he damaged goods?

And the most important question, with the draft looming just days away: Is the Kansas 7-footer still worthy of a high lottery pick? Should a top-five team take a chance on him?

The Cameroon native's foot injury in itself is a serious concern, and when we factor in his past knee and back issues, we can legitimately call him an "injury-prone" player. It's hard to blame general managers and executives for being scared to take him.


History Doesn't Doom Him

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

Many have pointed to the fates of centers Bill Walton and Yao Ming, two All-Stars whose feet and careers disintegrated after injuries to the navicular bone.

According to Kevin Pelton of ESPN (subscription required), Walton played 259 of a possible 738 games after his foot betrayed him. Meanwhile, Yao played 82 of 246, and his career came to a saddening halt. Will Embiid endure the same fate?

Maybe, but there are several recovery stories that serve as positive fuel for Embiid and his draft suitors.

Aside from Michael Jordan, who broke his navicular bone during his second season and went on to dominate the NBA explosively, there are a couple big men who made solid comebacks.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who's feet supported a tall and bulky frame, enjoyed huge success after coming back from his injury. Pelton noted, "Ilgauskas offers perhaps the most hopeful outcome for Embiid...after returning to the court in December 2001, Ilgauskas played at least 78 games each of the following five seasons, moving past his foot issues to become a two-time All-Star."

MIAMI - JANUARY 4: Zydrunas Ilgauskas #11, LeBron James #6, and Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat prepare to play against the Milwaukee Bucks on January 4, 2011 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
James Riley/Getty Images

Ditto for Kevin McHale, the Hall of Fame cog for the Boston Celtics. Pelton notes that once he returned to the court, he missed just eight games over three seasons and went on to make four All-Star teams.

It's still a substantial risk to select Embiid, but those examples show that he can play at an All-Star level after recovering. He's just 20 years old, his surgery reportedly went "very well," and a source told Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio that "the injury is not believed to be career-threatening."


Weighing Embiid Against Other Options

We can't sugarcoat that it's a gamble to pick Embiid in the top five. It would be foolish for the Cleveland Cavaliers to roll the dice on him this year, especially considering recent acquisitions who haven't panned out.

And you can't fault the Milwaukee Bucks for passing on him to take Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins with the second pick. Those are absolute studs with all the attributes of a top pick.

But the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz should give strong consideration to choosing Embiid. Many of the other targeted prospects in that range are also significantly risky, and their potential reward isn't as high as the Cameroonian tower.

While he may have a bright future, Dante Exum is still an international unknown. His 6'6" frame and ball-handling skills are a special combination, but he's not as rare of a player as Embiid. Noah Vonleh is also somewhat of an unproven commodity, as he's still learning and his freshman campaign paled in comparison to Embiid's.

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

And the rest of the high-lottery options (Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle) are solid prospects, but their ceilings aren't even in the neighborhood of Embiid.

If you're a rebuilding team like Philly, Orlando or Utah, you can afford to take the chance. With plenty of salary cap room the next two summers, these clubs should look at stealing the big man and building around him. It would dynamically accelerate and fortify the climb back to relevance, notes Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News:

The chance to sidestep a potentially lengthy rebuilding phase by drafting a physically gifted big man like Embiid—and then building around him with the money available under the salary cap—far outweighs the risk of his career unfolding like (Sam) Bowie’s or (Greg) Oden’s.


The Reward Remains Massive

Oftentimes, when a draft prospect's stock drops because of an event, revelation or injury, we have a tendency to almost forget how good that player is.

In the event that Embiid recovers and is healthy for most of his career, he's going to be a monster.

He's much more than a raw center with athleticism and a 7'5.75" wingspan. Throughout his freshman campaign, he showed tangible skills, including low-post scoring, passing and rim protection.

The comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon go beyond their similarities as athletic African-born prodigies who are quick learners. ESPN provides concrete evidence that many of Embiid's per-minute numbers at Kansas were richer than The Dream's freshman stats:

Per 40 Minutes as a Freshman

This doesn't guarantee that Embiid will be the next Olajuwon, but if he's healthy, he will likely have a similar two-way impact. He has tremendous natural instincts, a willingness to battle physically in the paint along with the fluidity and agility to operate in today's small-ball style of basketball.

Landing the wrong big man (like Bowie or Oden) can result in years or decades of regret. However, when teams successfully pick a star-caliber anchor, the dividends are incalculable.

The Sixers, Magic and Jazz fell short on lottery night, and they're sitting at picks 3-5. Yet they have a chance to acquire a No. 1-caliber player, a seven-foot dynamo who still may become the next great NBA big man.


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