Frozen for a moment, I stood and stared blankly. The voice on the other end of the phone just asked me a question I was not expecting, and it was one that made me think for a second or two before spitting out my answer.
“Moke, who will play more games during the 2014-15 NBA season?” the voice asked. “Will it be Derrick Rose? Or Joel Embiid?”
Saddened, I thought about it briefly before muttering the easy answer.
“Derrick Rose,” I said. “According to reports, he’s playing and he’s looking pretty good and he is returning to the floor at the very moment that we have learned that Embiid will be off of it for the immediate future.”
But as for who will play more games over the next 10 NBA seasons?
That is something that I simply do not know—and neither does anyone else. Embiid has now dealt with three injuries in four seasons of playing basketball, the latest being a stress fracture in the navicular bone.
This is the same bone that has limited NBA centers in recent years. Zydrunas Ilgauskas fractured his navicular bone early in his career, which is why he played in just five games in his second NBA season. Bill Walton and Yao Ming had navicular issues as well, and were ultimately unable to overcome their foot woes and fulfill their vast potential.
When players are red-flagged due to a potentially serious injury, they free fall on draft night. Jared Sullinger and DeJuan Blair both experienced draft day tumbles due to concerns over their faulty limbs.
Your 3-series BMW cannot roll without four good wheels, and neither can a big man in today’s NBA.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, their draft day decisions have become much easier. But for the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz, the same cannot be said.
Will Dante Exum be the next Jonny Flynn?
Will Julius Randle become the second coming of Michael Beasley?
Many smarter than me say absolutely not, but the truth is that if anyone were able to certainly gauge the ceiling, fire and determination of an NBA prospect—and what it will be after he gets paid millions of dollars—they would own a fleet of yachts that rival former NBA Commissioner David Stern’s.
You simply do not know and cannot tell.
The NBA Draft: where dreams come true and where franchises make selections that alter their history—for better or worse.
There is no questioning Embiid’s immense potential or the fact that he belongs in the NBA, when healthy. Recently, both Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis overcame rookie injuries to become NBA All-Stars.
Can Embiid do the same? Who will risk it? Who can afford to? Does his potential and significant strides made in his game override those concerns?
In many ways, these are questions of first impression, because consensus top three picks are rarely diagnosed with injuries that have the potential to not only keep them out of action for four to six months, but also alter their careers before they even begin.
So, at this point, the fair (or unfair) question as it relates to Embiid is not whether he will he will fall on draft night, but how far?
If you are the Orlando Magic, at number four, could you afford to take the major risk of drafting Embiid? Could you do so if either Dante Exum or Marcus Smart are still on the board? Either young point guard running alongside 2014 Rookie of the Year runner-up Victor Oladipo would be exciting, and it would give the Magic a nice foundation, especially with Nikola Vucevic at center. But if they take the best-player-available approach and continue to stockpile assets, Embiid could be an option.
If you are the Utah Jazz, at number five, would you pull the plug on Enes Kanter and his potential by agreeing to dedicate the necessary time and resources to Embiid? Not only will drafting Embiid require commitment to his healing process, but also his development since he’s extremely raw. The Jazz selected Kanter with the third overall pick in 2011—just three years ago. Jonas Valanciunas, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Markieff Morris, Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried and Vucevic are among the players they passed on for Kanter. Is it too early to cut bait? What kind of message would it send to Kanter knowing that the Jazz selected another center who they know can’t play for at least four months?
It wouldn’t exactly be a ringing endorsement of the franchise’s confidence in Kanter.
In what is easily one of the least discussed story lines of this summer, the Boston Celtics are at an inevitable crossroads with Rajon Rondo. As Danny Ainge clings to the hope that he can manage to end up with Kevin Love wearing Celtic green, the Celtics know that anything short of acquiring an impact player will assuredly hastened Rondo’s departure.
At number six, would Ainge be wise to select Embiid if he is on the board? Maybe, but maybe not. Depending on how the top five selections shake out, Ainge may have an opportunity to select either Randle or Noah Vonleh.
Could he say no to that? Would he on a roll of the dice?
Unfortunately, despite his potential, that is what Embiid has become. Big men do not typically get healthier once they begin playing with the big boys in the NBA. Just ask Andrew Bynum.
Like Embiid, Bynum entered the NBA as a fairly scrawny seven-footer with tons of potential, and similarly, Bynum added some much-needed girth to his frame. That may not have caused Bynum’s knee-cartilage issues, but it probably did not help his cause either.
For Embiid, the biggest question that needs to be answered right now revolves around what it will take for him to become a productive center in the NBA.
Aside from sheer repetition and time, many scouts agree that Embiid lacks the size and stature to take the severe punishment that will be inflicted upon him by some of the NBA’s bigger and stronger centers. When such concerns persist, the answer typically consists of intense weight-lifting regimens, bulking up and gaining mass, but a center with foot issues and increasing one’s body mass does not necessarily sound like a winning combination.
And if this were the 2009 or 2013 drafts—both of which were considered “weak”—taking a flier on a raw, young big man like Hasheem Thabeet or Meyers Leonard is easier to rationalize because if it is the the wrong decision, it’s easier to forget if the majority of players selected afterward did not go on to become all-pro performers.
But with Vonleh, Randle and even Aaron Gordon all expected to be productive big men, we truly have a conflict between Embiid’s potential and what he can be at his best and drafting a serviceable pro who can play for seven to 10 years.
In the end, all it may take for Embiid to fall much further than any expect is for one or two players to surprise the masses and end up being selected earlier than forecasted. And yes, that happens every year.
This year, it could easily be Elfrid Payton or Doug McDermott, just like it was Anthony Bennett in 2013, Dion Waiters in 2012 or Bismack Biyombo in 2011.
One player can make all of the difference, and one player could easily become the difference between a team selecting in the four to eight range as having to choose between a player that they believe can help them right now and Embiid’s potential.
Therein lies the quandary.
In many ways, the drafting of Embiid will be a risk-reward calculation unlike one we have seen in quite some time. Certainly, the navicular bone in his right foot is cause for concern, but the more troubling issue is the consistency with which he has been hurt. He has sustained injuries to his knee and back and may simply not be durable enough to stand up to the rigors of an 82-game NBA season, not including preseason or playoffs.
Who will tempt fate?
Which general manager will have the courage?
In a draft that is believed to be as talented as the 2003 NBA Draft, which team will gamble their opportunity of acquiring a difference maker on Embiid’s immense potential, balky back and broken foot?
It is an event that is not seen very often and a storyline that is an interesting one to watch unfold. At this point, there are many more questions than answers.
Unfortunately, today, the same can be said of Joel Embiid.
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