The only thing guaranteed to be more delayed than Joel Embiid's reaction to getting picked just behind Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker in the 2014 NBA draft is the satisfaction the Philadelphia 76ers and their fans will derive from watching him on the court.
The 7-foot Cameroonian watched the draft not from the green room at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, but from his agent's couch in Los Angeles, his leg laid up after a foot operation that could keep him out of action for much (if not all) of what would otherwise be his rookie campaign.
But if Philly's patience and persistence in following general manager Sam Hinkie's plan pay off, the Sixers could come roaring back to life among the NBA's elite in the years to come.
Emphasis on years. Embiid is expected to need four to six months to recover from surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in his right foot, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Hinkie, on the other hand, thinks the wait could be longer than that. "I've seen reported some four to six months [for Embiid]," Hinkie said on Friday, via NJ.com's Matt Lombardo. "That's not the number I heard. The number I heard from the surgeon himself was five to eight months."
That could cut deeply into Embiid's rookie season and, considering both the delicate nature of the injury and his history of setbacks during his few short years of organized basketball, might be enough to convince the Sixers to hold him out well beyond the initial timetable.
They took a similar approach with Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft. He suffered an ACL tear during his freshman season at Kentucky and may have been healthy enough to return for the last week or two of the 2013-14 season.
But the Sixers insisted that Noel wasn't actually ready as scuttle of his supposed debut flew through the rumor mill. "To go through this duration that we have all gone through and be anything less than responsible and smart would be shameful," head coach Brett Brown told CSNPhilly.com's Dei Lynam. "Nerlens is simply not ready. That is the lay of the land right now."
The Sixers shouldn't be in any rush to get Embiid back on the court either. They're not likely to so much as sniff the playoffs in the Eastern Conference in 2015—not after the debacle into which 2013-14 devolved. For some perspective, the Sixers lost more games in one streak (26) than they won the entire season (19).
Even so, Philly couldn't quite "out-tank" the 15-win Milwaukee Bucks and were subsequently leapfrogged by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the lottery. That slip kept the Sixers from snagging Embiid's teammate, Andrew Wiggins. Philly was thought to have its sights set on the Canadian sensation, only for Embiid's injury to all but force the Cavs to go with a surer thing at No. 1.
(For what it's worth, Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers never went hard after Cleveland's pick.)
The Sixers won't be that much better next season than they were last, with or without Embiid stepping in.
Sure, Michael Carter-Williams, the reigning Rookie of the Year, will be older, wiser and (possibly) more polished as a playmaker than he was in 2013-14. Noel's return to health also guarantees that the Sixers will add a lottery-picked newbie to their squad, even after spending their 2014 selections on "stashables"—including Dario Saric, the Croatian sensation who's set to spend at least another two years playing overseas before he brings his game stateside.
And hey, maybe Jason Richardson will be healthy enough to play or even contribute meaningfully to the team.
But the rest of the roster looks more like a Frank Reynolds fever dream than the beginnings of an actual team. Beyond MCW, Noel and Richardson, the Sixers' stack of guaranteed contracts for 2014-15 consists of Thaddeus Young, Tony Wroten and Arnett Moultrie. That trio could be quickly knocked down to a pair if/when the Sixers decide to put Young out to pasture.
And if they don't do it, Young will probably do it himself next summer, when he's free to opt out, per Liberty Ballers' Jake Fischer.
All told, any hopes of the Sixers so much as sniffing the postseason will almost certainly go the way of ballin' Ben Franklin. This squad might as well start planning for next year's draft, when names like Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner and Cliff Alexander could find their way into households across the country and around the world.
Come July 1, you're more likely to see the Sixers use their cap space to absorb bad contracts from other teams—and the draft picks and young players attached as sweeteners—rather than to sign veteran free agents who can help them right away.
This would all seem part of the plan for the Sixers, though. Hinkie runs his front office much like his mentor Daryl Morey runs his in Houston. Cap manipulation and asset accumulation are the chief means of team-building, with the former often feeding into the latter. The goal is to get great players, not just good ones, as painstaking and frustrating a process as that may require.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe put it:
The Sixers want to win big. They have no interest in being the late-2000s Hawks. They know the easiest avenue to win big is to find a superstar...Everyone seems to agree that Joel Embiid represents this draft’s best chance at a superstar, and so the Sixers, happy to embrace the risk of foot injuries and disastrously bad big men playing disastrously bad basketball for them next season, plucked Embiid right up.
Hinkie said as much: "I sniffed opportunity the moment it happened. The moment he got hurt, we thought we might be the organization with just the set of owners and we might do it."
As it happens, there might not have been a better situation into which Embiid could have fallen than the one he'll find in Philly. He won't have to worry about the expectations of playoff contention that Andrew Wiggins will face with the Cleveland Cavaliers or that Julius Randle will find upon being introduced as the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Embiid won't have to shoulder the burden of an entire region, as Jabari Parker will with the Milwaukee Bucks. Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum and Marcus Smart might not have to win post haste, but they figure to be thrown into the fire nonetheless.
In truth, those guys are better prepared to do so than Embiid would be, even if he were healthy. Some (e.g., Wiggins, Parker, Gordon, Exum and Randle) were raised by former NBA players, grew up within basketball families and/or were coached up by their parents. Most have been playing the game for the majority of their lives, with countless hours spent honing their respective games in empty gyms and live action alike over the years.
Embiid has had no such luxury. The 20-year-old picked up the game when he was 15. As Jordan Conn detailed in a fantastic piece for Grantland, Embiid grew up in a soccer-crazed country (Cameroon) where basketball is little more than an afterthought, concrete courts are rare and indoor gyms are even scarcer. His father, a colonel in Cameroon's military, had to be convinced that basketball would be a worthwhile pursuit for his son, rather than a mere distraction from his studies.
Despite all that, he blossomed into an unbelievable prospect, a can't-miss talent who would have gone No. 1 in this draft if not for a busted foot. That experience—or lack thereof—plays into the fascination surrounding him and his enormous upside.
The Sixers won't rush him back into action. If anything, they'll allow him to take his time, not only to heal but also to work on his game like never before. He'll have a chance to get a feel for the speed of the NBA while watching from the sidelines and studying film and get his body in proper shape with the help of a world-class staff, just as Noel did last season.
He'll garner more than his fair share of attention from the team's coaching, training and player development people, including Brett Brown, who shined in that capacity during his days with the San Antonio Spurs. Brown worked one-on-one with Noel throughout the 2013-14 season to retool the Kentucky product's jump shot and teach him the finer points of the game.
Brown, for one, was pleased with the progress he saw from Noel. "I see a far more mature type of player," Brown told The South Jersey Times' Rob Edwards. "Having to have gone through everything, all the film sessions, all the weight sessions. This year has been invaluable to him."
Just as the year to come could, should and probably will be invaluable to Embiid. After seeing what Noel—a more seasoned but lesser prospect than Embiid—was able to do in his year away, the Sixers can justifiably salivate over the potential inherent in their latest pet project.
Hinkie, too, is uniquely qualified to evaluate and handle a hobbled big man like Embiid. Hinkie was among the Houston Rockets' brass when Yao Ming suffered through foot problems similar to Embiid's. The GM, of all people, should know to proceed with caution, even though, when it comes to size and swiftness afoot, Embiid and Yao are hardly comparable; the former gets up and down the court like a gazelle, while the latter was known to plod his way from one end to the other.
"We will focus on the long-term health of the player," Hinkie said, per Lombardo. "That's all that matters. Will we be smart about that? Of course. Will we be patient? Yes. If he can remain healthy, he can have a fantastic NBA career."
Indeed he can, but the Sixers will have to wait, just as they had to wait on draft night to see Embiid's ear-to-ear smile shine through after his selection.
Embiid's may be hurt, but he's active on Twitter...just like yours truly!
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