Does Joel Embiid's Latest Injury Scare Raise Greg Oden Red Flags?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJune 21, 2014

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Greg Oden will forever weigh on the minds of NBA front offices in the days leading up to the draft, especially this year as they try figuring out what in the world to think of Joel Embiid. 

The Ohio State big man was a once-in-a-generation prospect back in 2007, so good that he was legitimately ahead of Kevin Durant on most big boards. In fact, ESPN Insider Chad Ford (subscription required) recently called Oden the second-best prospect since 2000, trailing only LeBron James.

Surely he was going to come into the NBA and thrive at center, ushering in a new golden age for the biggest position on the court. 

Instead, Oden could never stay healthy. 

One knee injury after another derailed a promising career, keeping him off the court for seasons at a time until he landed on the Miami Heat bench and spent this past season watching LeBron from the sidelines, unable to contribute whatsoever, save for a few spurts in garbage time. 

"I know I’m one of the biggest busts in NBA history," Oden told Grantland's Mark Titus during the 2013-14 campaign when asked about his comfort level as a benchwarmer. 

Now, he's the looming specter in the minds of general managers as Embiid's draft stock suddenly becomes surrounded by a shroud of uncertainty. 

The Kansas center is another potential once-in-a-generation prospect, a player who is drawing legitimate comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. Embiid ranked No. 9 on Ford's list, but now the league is mired in confusion as it figures out what to think of him. After all, the back injury that kept him from finishing what he started for the Jayhawks was problematic enough; this new malady is a whole new wrench. 

Embiid suffered a fractured navicular bone in his right foot, the result of undue stress on that bone. Fortunately, the resulting surgery was a successful one, as Dr. Richard Ferkel, who oversaw the 7-footer as he went under the knife, proclaimed, via Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski

Two screws were inserted into the navicular bone in Joel Embiid’s right foot. The surgery went very well and I’m confident that after appropriate healing he will be able to return to NBA Basketball. Joel tolerated the surgery without difficulty and will begin his rehabilitation in the near future.

According to Wojnarowski, Embiid is set to return in four to six months. 

The optimistic side of that projection has him back on the court in late October, right before the start of the 2014-15 campaign. He'd miss the NBA Summer League and training camp with whichever team drafts him, but he'd be ready to go on opening day.

The pessimistic end of the recovery timetable would have him returning right before the calendar flips over to 2015, though caution could certainly be exercised, as it was this past season when the Philadelphia 76ers held out Nerlens Noel for the entire year as he recovered from his torn ACL. 

But the initial recovery isn't the main concern. 

That would be the growing injury history, which has to remind scouts and front office members of Oden, as well as the long-term future of this particular center. History doesn't look upon big men suffering navicular fractures with too much kindness.

Big Men Have Injury Concerns

Jan 17, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Miami Heat center Greg Oden (20) watches from the bench during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Heat defeated the Sixers 101-86. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY S

Let's avoid any discussion of Embiid's specific injury for the time being. After all, this isn't the first major blow he's had, as BasketballInsider.com's Alex Kennedy reveals: 

"Joel is beat up. He's beat up," Kansas head coach Bill Self told The Associated Press in February, as relayed by ESPN.com. "I'm not going to make an excuse for him because you have to perform. But he's going to need some time off. I don't know how much time, but he's going to need some time off."

At the time, Embiid was dealing with both a sprained knee and the stress fracture in his back, the latter gaining much more publicity during the remainder of his one collegiate season and the ensuing NBA draft proceedings. 

Self's quote came after an overtime loss to Kansas State on Feb. 10, one in which Embiid was limited to only 18 minutes and was fairly ineffective. He'd sit out the next game, then play in four contests, with much better results, before missing the rest of the season to let his back heal. 

If the navicular fracture was the first major injury, scouts might be less scared. But after three different blows in one season of college basketball, especially with only three prior campaigns under his belt at any level, there has to be some concern. After all, the NBA season—82 games against tougher, more physical competition—is quite rigorous. 

Feb 4, 2014; Waco, TX, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) during the game against the Baylor Bears at the Ferrell Center. The Jayhawks defeated the Bears 69-52. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

"More worrisome is that Embiid suffered a second stress fracture in less than a year," explained Will Carroll, Bleacher Report's sports injuries lead writer, after the initial news broke. "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."

And in the back of everyone's minds are the big men of recent history. 

Not just Oden.

Brook Lopez, whose foot injuries have kept him out of the Brooklyn Nets lineup time and time again. Andrew Bynum, who went from challenging Dwight Howard for the No. 1 spot on the center totem pole to nearly washing out of the league, unable to stay healthy or find a permanent landing spot. 

Going back even further, Yao Ming fizzled after this very foot injury affected him. Before that, Sam Bowie was the victim. So too were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Rik Smits, Mark Eaton and Bill Walton.

The list goes on and on. 

The injury history of centers is terrifying, and it's even more fearsome, at least in some cases, when delving into this specific malady. 

Navicular History

PORTLAND - 1978: Bill Walton #32 of the Portland Trailblazers sits on the bench during an NBA game in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms
Ken Regan/Getty Images

According to ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required), there have been six big men in NBA history with recorded navicular fractures: Curtis BorchardtBrendan HaywoodIlgauskas, Kevin McHale, Walton and Yao. 

Multiple perimeter players—including Michael Jordan, who suffered the injury during his second professional season and fully recovered, to say the least—join the list, but they're not relevant. They're smaller, naturally leading to less stress on the feet. 

So, how did the sextet fare? 

Borchardt entered the league with problems suffered during his college career, and the bone flared up again during his rookie season with the Utah Jazz, holding him to only 16 games played. A fractured wrist in his second season was the next blow, and he never again played in the NBA. 

Ilgauskas also suffered a navicular fracture during his first campaign in the Association, but he went on to enjoy a lengthy and successful career. Somehow, that happened after a second fracture just a few years later, one that kept him out of the entire 1999-00 season and limited him to just 24 games the year after.

Nonetheless, he's arguably the biggest success story of the bunch, given the length of his career. He still played five more seasons and made two All-Star teams for the Cleveland Cavaliers before retiring. 

ATLANTA - 1988:  Kevin McHale #32 of the Boston Celtics posts up against Kevin Willis #42 of the Atlanta Hawks during a game played in 1988 at the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this
NBA Photos/Getty Images

Challenging him for that status is McHale, who actually played through the injury during the 1987 postseason. He missed only a month of the follow-up campaign, then stayed remarkably healthy, making the All-Star squad each of four seasons directly after the injury was suffered. 

Walton and Yao didn't have such positive outcomes. The former quickly declined, regressing from an MVP candidate to a benchwarmer, and the latter was forced into early retirement at 30 years old after his attempted return was derailed by more stress fractures. 

As for Haywood, we simply don't know yet. He suffered the injury this past October, missing the entire 2013-14 season. And as he's already 34 years old, there's no telling whether he'll ever be back. 

Reasons for Optimism 

Now, let's take a look at the ages and weights of the players who suffered this major blow: 

Injury History
Age at InjuryListed HeightListed Weight
Curtis Borchardt23 (during rookie fracture)7'0"240 pounds
Joel Embiid197'0"240 pounds
Zydrunas Ilgauskas21 (during rookie fracture) and 23 (during second fracture)7'3"238 pounds
Kevin McHale296'10"210 pounds
Yao Ming277'6"310 pounds
Bill Walton256'11"210 pounds

Embiid is not inordinately big. 

Sure, part of his appeal is that his frame can handle more muscle—and thus more weight—without sacrificing the athleticism that makes him such a special player, but he still weighs only 240 pounds. That's not markedly bigger than the other players who have suffered from this injury, and it offers optimism that he won't have the recurring history of Yao. 

In fact, Borchardt is the most comparable from a purely physical standpoint, though he was never nearly as talented and suffered other fluke injuries that did away with his NBA prospects. Embiid is also definitely not Walton, as Adi Joseph explicitly states and clarifies for USA Today

Embiid is not Walton, whose career was one injury after another even before he had his first issues with foot stress fractures in 1978. But the bad back that didn't allow him to finish his lone college season at Kansas will weigh on the minds of any team looking to draft him. Embiid overcame the back issue to impress everyone in workouts, but that won't clear up concerns that he may simply be injury prone.

That's worth harping on. 

Yes, Embiid had back concerns, but those were being cleared up. Not only did he look fantastic in workouts, showing no signs of any limitations, but he'd become the near-consensus No. 1 prospect in the draft class once more, even with Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins chomping at the bit. 

On top of that, we don't know what the anatomy of his foot is like. 

LM Otero/Associated Press

As Dr. Mark Adickes, who was on the Houston Rockets staff when Yao was dealing with his navicular fracture, writes for ESPN Insider (subscription required), that's another reason for good vibes: 

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.

It's still hard to be certain, as optimistic as Dr. Adickes sounds. 

Teams are going to be scared off early in the draft-day proceedings, largely because of the injury history belonging to too many big men in recent and distant history, as NBA.com's Adam Zagoria makes clear up above. Personally, I have Embiid going at No. 6 to the Boston Celtics, with the expectation that error on my part will be due to him coming off the board earlier than that, not later. 

This doesn't have to be a red flag on the level of Oden, who earns that type of designation because he's the biggest bust of the bunch and the most recent warning. 

There are success stories, even when dealing with this bone that's so notoriously slow to heal. And because Embiid doesn't have an inordinate amount of weight being placed upon it—nor does he have much mileage, seeing as he's not legally able to drink and only has a few years of basketball under his belt—there's even more reason for optimism. 

Remember, stress fractures aren't caused by the bones reacting negatively to stressors like final exams and finding a date to prom. They're the result of too much pressure, potentially over too long a time; essentially, they're overuse injuries. 

Is Embiid guaranteed to recover from this setback and resume a dream-like path toward Olajuwon status? Absolutely not. 

But he's also not guaranteed to follow in Oden's limping footsteps. 


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