Thursday's 2014 NBA draft features one of the most polarizing big men to be eligible for selection in Kansas phenom Joel Embiid. Following just one year in Lawrence with the Jayhawks, the dynamic 7-footer is taking his talents to the highest level—and for good reason.
Embiid has shooting range that extends to three-point land, deft touch for his size and supreme athleticism that allows him to shine on both ends of the court. At this early stage of his career, he's only going to get better.
Health permitting. That's a big caveat, to be sure.
After missing the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments with a back injury, Embiid sustained a stress fracture in his right foot leading up to the draft. Once thought to be a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick, medical red flags have Embiid's stock falling.
But just how far will Embiid fall on draft night? This could be the next great NBA center, or Embiid's health problems could plague him for his entire career. At what point does his value exceed the risk of drafting him so high?
That and other pertinent questions will be weighing heavily on front offices. To be frank, things are getting pretty nutty on the eve of the draft, per Jake Fischer of The Boston Globe:
If Embiid slides past franchises in desperate need of a superstar and the youngster takes the Association by storm, it will be a huge opportunity lost. Then again, he could succumb to injuries and never quite live up to his immense potential.
Embiid presents a dilemma of epic proportions. Some teams, though, are in better position than others to invest in him. Below is a ranking of Embiid's best destinations based on personnel fit, slot in the draft order and how he'd project in the respective organizations.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (No. 3 overall pick)
There is so much uncertainty in Philadelphia at the moment. The main reason for it is that general manager Sam Hinkie has gutted the roster and invested heavily in the future. Whether the Sixers can even compete as soon as next year depends on this draft.
But Hinkie could do worse than to build Philly's nucleus around reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, another 2013 first-round pick in Nerlens Noel and Embiid.
BasketballInsiders.com's Steve Kyler brings up a relevant point regarding Embiid's medical history:
So much upside can be had between the aforementioned trio alone. The Sixers also have the 10th overall pick at their disposal, along with a whopping five second-round selections.
Thus, they could move up further in the order and grab a player they may not have been able to acquire otherwise. For that matter, Hinkie and Co. could draft someone else at No. 3 and trade up for Embiid thereafter.
Both Noel and Embiid are rather slender and have injury histories, yet if they can stay healthy, they could form a new-age frontcourt that would be borderline unstoppable. Noel's offensive game was developing at a rapid rate before his only season at the University of Kentucky was cut short by a torn ACL.
With a redshirt year of sorts, this is the time for Noel to make a big splash. If Embiid were healthy enough to join him on the floor in 2014-15, coach Brett Brown could get extremely creative on offense. Brown acknowledged the possibility that Hinkie could take another flier on a previously injured big in Embiid just as he did with Noel, per 97.5 FM Sixers radio host Brian Seltzer:
With a playmaker like Carter-Williams being able to distribute, get to the rim and guard on the perimeter, all the Sixers would need are a couple of outside shooters to complement them.
Surely those can be found with all the assets Hinkie has accrued. In the meantime, Embiid could be brought along slowly, then be a part of one of the most promising cores in the NBA.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (No. 7 overall pick)
A lot of the Lakers' future depends on Kobe Bryant. How much energy he has left, whether he can return to elite form and if his contract will be too much of an impediment to bring in quality talent will all be huge determining factors for LA in the next two years.
Investing the seventh overall pick in Embiid is great value. Even if the Lakers aren't able to retain Pau Gasol, Bryant will still serve as a great mentor for Embiid as he acclimates to the pros.
And what better motivator could Embiid have as he continues to rehab from his injury than Bryant? The Black Mamba has dealt with various ailments throughout his career, found a way to play through pain often and become one of the all-time greatest players.
Bleacher Report NBA Senior Writer Kevin Ding weighed in on the possibility of bringing Embiid to LA in a recent piece:
Big men might be less heralded in today’s NBA, but until someone lowers the basket a foot, size still matters in an irrefutable way. Embiid’s sizable skill set is so proven—the natural, graceful footwork, soft hands and sweet touch to go with shot-blocking timing and tenacity—that it’s mind-boggling to estimate his true upside at 20 and having played the game for just three years.
Similar to how the Sixers are set up, there may not be an opportunity to win right away. Presuming Bryant can hang around through the end of his contract in 2015-16, though, all the pieces should be in place for one last push at the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Another All-Star or two should also be a part of the Lake Show, with Embiid coming into his own in Year 2.
A lot of this fit leans heavily on Bryant's influence—as it should. Embiid is still so raw yet seemingly limitless in his ceiling. Bryant is someone who can help the rookie realize that, and inspire Embiid to work harder than he might in an alternative, likely losing scenario to start his career.
Plus, landing Embiid could entice free agents to join Bryant and be part of the turnaround for one of professional sports' most prestigious franchises.
Since his return is estimated at four to six months, if such a physical marvel as Embiid has the genetics to heal and return quicker, that could put him back on the court in January or so. If Bryant and whoever else joins him in LA can will the Lakers to within striking distance of the playoffs to that point, Embiid could net more immediate returns than expected.
1. Boston Celtics (No. 6 overall pick)
Unlike the Lakers at the moment, the archrival Celtics have a head coach in place in Brad Stevens, along with more than one guaranteed, promising piece of the puzzle in the current plans. Last year's first-round pick, Kelly Olynyk, is 7 feet tall but has the skill set to be more of a stretch 4—and a matchup nightmare at that spot.
Where Olynyk falls short is in his ability to defend the paint and protect the rim. Neither of those are problems for Embiid, who averaged 2.6 blocks per contest this last season.
The Celtics have another pick at No. 17, giving them the chance to trade up if need be. They can acquire another perimeter player to offer another guard who can create his own offense. But if Embiid is here in the sixth slot, it's hard to imagine Boston passing on him.
Point guard Rajon Rondo is among the best facilitators in the game and needs a better supporting cast to thrive. Embiid has the most upside of anyone in this draft. Since Boston can bring in another impact player with its other first-rounder, there is an excellent opportunity to add Embiid in to the rotation as soon as he's ready.
Brandon Bass is entering a contract year, Jared Sullinger has not quite found a proper frontcourt position and the Celtics offer little if any competition at center. The sheer athleticism and offense Boston could boast with an eventual starting five of Embiid, Olynyk, Jeff Green, a surefire 2-guard and Rondo is fascinating to contemplate.
And in all honesty, yours truly didn't see this intel from Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix until before this Embiid-to-Beantown section was started:
So there's a reasonable chance that Embiid lands in either Philly, LA or Boston. All are big-market options with considerable promise. However, with the long-ranging speculation involved with the Sixers and Lakers, there is a little more certainty.
Hinkie has appeared willing to part ways with the assets on his recent rosters so easily, which could come back to burn him. The Lakers are in as tenuous of a state as ever, but they have tradition on their side and still have Bryant—for whatever he can still offer at this point. That leaves Boston as the best option.
There is already supporting talent in place for at least the beginning, formative years of Embiid's time in the NBA. Having a fundamentals-emphatic coach in Stevens who so recently coached in college at Butler would allow Embiid to feel more comfortable, too.
All signs point to the Celtics being the best spot for Embiid in the short term as well as the period through his rookie contract at least. By then, we will have a better idea of his ceiling, how much injuries will factor in and, most likely, continue to be captivated by the special talent Embiid is.