Unlike other positions regarding prospects for Thursday’s NBA draft, there is no 1 and 1A when it comes to the centers.
Joel Embiid, who left Kansas after his freshman season, is head and shoulders above all the rest. An unrefined but very athletic 7-footer with cat-quick movements as a defender, Embiid, 240 pounds, has been tabbed as the draft’s top center, pegged to go No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Joel is probably as talented and gifted an athlete as any big man I’ve seen in a while,” said TCU coach Trent Johnson, whose team is in the Big 12 Conference with Kansas. “Joel is pretty special in terms of his lateral movement and explosiveness.”
There’s a strong possibly he won’t be the first chosen, however. On Friday, two pins were inserted into Embiid’s right foot after he was found to have a stress fracture. It will take four to six months to heal, meaning he could be out until Christmas.
The question now is how far Embiid will fall in the draft. It has been speculated that he could tumble to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 10, which is interesting.
First, it’s a pick Philadelphia obtained last year from the New Orleans Pelicans in the trade for point guard Jrue Holiday. Second, Philadelphia also received Kentucky center/power forward Nerlens Noel in the Holiday draft-night deal. And Noel, considered the best big man in the 2013 draft, was coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He missed all of last season.
Dr. Richard Ferkel, who performed the surgery on Embiid, said that “after appropriate healing, he will be able to return to NBA basketball.”
Barring something totally unforeseen, Embiid should still be the first center picked. Whether the Cavaliers will take a chance on what could be a franchise-changing player whose position makes him rare remains to be seen. Last season, Cleveland selected small forward Anthony Bennett at No. 1 overall even though he’d had shoulder after his final college season.
Big men with foot injuries that require surgery send up billboard-sized red flags. The most recent one was Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez last season. Houston Rockets All-Star Yao Ming’s career was cut short in 2011 after he missed 250 games in his final six seasons, during which there were three stress fractures, two requiring surgery.
Bill Walton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 draft, had surgery on the same navicular bone as Embiid during his first two pro seasons. He led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship, but had a second stress fracture in 1978 and reconstructive foot surgeries after. He salvaged his career as a backup with the Boston Celtics, also winning a championship there.
There have been others, however, who have overcome foot surgeries to have a career, albeit not spectacular ones: the Indiana Pacers’ Rik Smits and the Cavaliers’ Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Embiid, though, has had other ailments. He missed Kansas’ last six games with a stress fracture in his back, and he also had a sprained knee.
When he’s healthy, though, he’s elite. Playing just 23.1 minutes per game, he averaged 11.2 points on 62.6 percent shooting and finished second in the conference in blocked shots (2.6 per game) and sixth in rebounding (8.1).
“He could go No. 1, but he’ll translate great because he (moves well) and he’s got a terrific frame,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He’s a very, very, very good athlete, and he’s like a sponge. And the fact that he’s been playing three years and has been this advanced is quite remarkable when you look at the big scheme, especially for a big man.”
Scouts compare Embiid to former University of Houston and Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon, who also had raw skills, particularly offensively, in college but developed into an NBA all-time great. He wound up as the league’s all-time leader in blocked shots and finished seventh in steals, which is remarkable for a center.
Ryan Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting, said Embiid’s defensive quickness and shot-blocking ability leap out.
“He reminds me of the (Oklahoma City) Thunder’s Serge Ibaka, the way he comes over and blocks shots, when you compare him to current players,” Blake said. “He hasn’t played basketball long, and he had eight double-doubles (points, rebounds), five games with more than five blocks, and a high of eight blocks.
“He’s got so much strength, a big upside. He plays fluid, he balanced. He plays with his back to the basket (and) facing the basket. Good body control, lateral movement exceptional for a 7-footer. He can be someone very special.”
With the specter hanging over him of the career of Greg Oden, the overall No. 1 pick in 2007, and his career cut short due to chronic bad knees, it may be all up to Embiid’s right foot. Time will tell. It just depends on with whom.
Other top center prospects are Jusuf Nurkic of Bosnia, 6-11, 280; Michigan’s Mitch McGary, 6-10, 255, who missed last season after back surgery; Florida’s Patric Young, undersized at 6-9; and Walter Tavares, 7-2, 265, of Cape Verde.