In the days and hours leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, no one’s stock sunk lower than Joel Embiid’s, the product of recent revelations that the 7’0” Kansas University prodigy had undergone a potential season-ending surgery on his right foot.
Like Nerlens Noel the year before, Embiid—after capping out atop many a mock draft—seemed in danger of slipping deep down the lottery ladder. Instead, it was Noel’s team, the Philadelphia 76ers, who wound up snatching the Cameroonian center at No. 3.
And, like Noel, Embiid may be forced to miss his entire rookie season:
Joel Embiid's recovery process is expected to cover 4-to-6 months, sources tell Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 20, 2014
That may not be what Sixers fans wanted to hear from general manager Sam Hinkie. But they might be glad they did.
In a nutshell, Hinkie’s front-office strategy boils down to a singular managerial mantra: collecting assets. It’s why Philly walked away from Thursday’s draft with seven total picks, and it’s why it’ll likely be lottery-bound for the foreseeable future.
Hinkie cut his front-office teeth under Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and a champion of the analytics movement whose creative approach to franchise construction has become something of a blueprint for medium and small-market teams looking to contend with the league’s traditional elite.
By stockpiling young players and cheap contracts, Hinkie is affording his franchise perhaps the single-most important organizational quality: flexibility.
This is what makes drafting Embiid such a great gamble: With so many young players waiting in the wings—some of them of the “pick-and-stash” variety—Hinkie could afford to take a risk where others teams couldn’t.
Teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, terrified of doubling down on the disaster that was the rookie year of Anthony Bennett, last year’s No. 1 overall selection.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks, just months removed from giving third-year center Larry Sanders a lucrative long-term extension, doubtless did their own double take.
Lasry is ruling out Bucks taking Embiid. "Our decision got a lot easier, mainly because Embiid got hurt."— cfgardner (@cf_gardner) June 23, 2014
One NBA source tells @SNYtv Joel Embiid could fall to 6-10 because of the 'Greg Oden factor. 'GMs are afraid of a top 5 pick.'— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) June 20, 2014
Joel Embiid has now had injuries to his knee, back and foot in his brief four-year basketball career. That's going to scare a lot of teams.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 19, 2014
That’s when Hinkie pounced.
"I sniffed opportunity," Hinkie told The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "The moment he got hurt, we thought we might get him. We might be just the organization with just the set of owners, and we might be the one to do it."
For Philly, drafting Embiid comes down to a simple utilitarian analysis: Do the potential rewards of him developing into an all-world talent outweigh the loss of production and PR flak of an injury-hastened bust?
Even given Embiid’s disconcerting injury history, Hinkie and company clearly fancied the former.
Chard Ford just told @MikeandMike he's hearing Joel Embiid medical reports have revealed injury concerns beyond only back and foot problems.— 975TheFanatic (@975TheFanatic) June 26, 2014
In fact, the center’s setbacks could actually be a good thing, strategically speaking. Not only does holding him out further ensure Philly remains basement-bound, it also gives Hinkie a chance, should Embiid bounce back and make an instant impact, to entertain attendant trade offers.
If, however, the worst case does come to pass and Embiid becomes the next Greg Oden, the worst the Sixers can say is they swung for the fences, tragic outcome be damned.
Whatever the likelihood of Embiid’s injuries taking too big a toll, Hinkie’s focus is, for now, squarely on the opposite prospect: that his draft-day diamond—so close to being buried in the rough—not only meets expectations but that he also exceeds them.
That, if you’re one for cavalier comps, would mean nothing less than one of the best big men to ever grace the court.
By now we’ve all heard the hype: runs the floor like a gazelle; protects the rim with authority; works the block like a young Hakeem Olajuwon incarnate. Even if Hinkie hits on two of the three, the Sixers could be laying claim to Steal of the Draft sooner than later.
In Embiid, Michael Carter Williams and Nerlens Noel, Hinkie has the rudiments of a potentially colossal core—a trio of hyper-athletic young players with enough length between them to reach all the way to the rafters.
Assuming, of course, Morey’s propensity for shapeshifting trades marks where master and apprentice part. Sooner or later, Philly will want to see the fruits of their lottery labors, the flash-and-bone team below the basketball blueprint.
Whether Embiid becomes a keystone in the foundation, it’s impossible to say. There are simply too many factors—of men, markets and medicine—for anyone to have more than a half-educated guess.
In the course of a calendar year, Embiid’s star went from distant flicker to plain-sighted supergiant. Over the next season, it might very well collapse completely. Such an outcome might not be preventable.
But that doesn't mean Hinkie and company shouldn't try.
Because if the Sixers do in fact have a bona fide basketball Polaris on their hands, caution is the only way to go. Even if it means a few more years of wandering in the darkness.