Big men always an injury risk in the NBA draft

Kansas center Joel Embiid had to sit out the NCAA tournament with a back injury.
Kansas center Joel Embiid had to sit out the NCAA tournament with a back injury. (MARK J. TERRILL / Associated Press)
Posted: June 21, 2014

As long as the goal is set exactly 10 feet off the floor - just like back in good, old Hickory - basketball coaches and team executives will always see the value, and hear the siren song, of having players able to visit that lofty area with ease.

Height is might in some ways, but it brings fright, because tall men are often less likely to match the pace and flow of an NBA game, and because there is an awful lot there in those 84 inches from head to toe that can get hurt.

The news on Thursday that Joel Embiid, a 20-year-old former Kansas center with a history of injury issues, had suffered a stress fracture in his right foot sent a shudder through the teams queued up for the opening selections of next week's draft.

The injury was discovered by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who own the first pick, during their medical examination of Embiid. The player's representatives either weren't aware of the fracture, or didn't feel that was something they wished to share with prospective employers. Surgery was scheduled for Friday and perhaps that will be the last time Embiid requires medical attention for the next 15 years, but the odds don't support that optimism.

Go down the long list that includes Marcus Camby, Andrew Bynum, Yao Ming, Michael Olowokandi, and Greg Oden, and there is no lack of frontcourt monsters taken very high in the draft, each described as freakishly talented at the time, whose careers were reduced significantly by injuries. You might want to add Bill Walton to the mix and, the best example of all, the center who was supposed to replace Walton for the Portland Trail Blazers, Sam Bowie.

The story is exactly 30 years old now, but Portland lost the draft coin flip, didn't get to take Akeem Olajuwon as a result, and selected Bowie with the second pick in the draft. Having taken Clyde Drexler the year before, the Blazers passed on choosing a shooting guard from North Carolina named Michael Jordan.

Bowie was indeed a talented center, but he had a terrible habit of breaking his legs. He sat out two seasons during his college career at Kentucky with a stress fracture in one tibia, and his luck didn't improve in the NBA. Bowie suffered breaks in both legs while with Portland and missed an entire season. He eventually lasted 10 years in the league but started just 349 games in that span.

None of those examples might mean anything in the case of Embiid, but a team risking a top-five pick in a deep draft had better be very sure about it. The only problem is there is no way to be very sure.

That's where 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie enters the story and begins to assess how the calculus of the draft has changed and how his team can benefit. The instant analysis was that Cleveland and Milwaukee, which holds the second pick, might be scared off Embiid and will snatch up the two players the Sixers most covet, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, but that is making a lot of assumptions. The follow-up assumption, that the Sixers will have to move up in order to assure themselves of either Wiggins or Parker, is also faulty.

The Sixers have given no indication of their preferences. It could be that Embiid is their prize, and having the opportunity to get him with the third pick would be one of those value selections that Hinkie loves. He swooped quickly last year to get a potential No. 1 pick who had fallen to the sixth selection, and it didn't bother the Sixers at all that Nerlens Noel might require a full year of rehabilitation to his injured knee.

More likely than moving up, the Sixers could move down from the third pick if Hinkie can add enough value to make that move worthwhile. He is playing the long game, and while other organizations might be freaked out by a lottery that has now been thrown into apparent chaos, Hinkie will keep trying to trade nickels for dimes and wait for the results to add up.

There's no clock ticking for the Sixers' on-court revival. If they make the playoffs next season, they owe a first-round draft pick from the Arnett Moultrie trade (as opposed to two second-round picks if they don't), so what's the hurry? Hinkie won't be reaching for a player with the third pick - stop it with the Noah Vonleh nonsense - but he won't keep other teams from making similar mistakes.

It could turn out that all the standard assumptions are correct, but there are too many things we don't know yet. We don't know what Sam Hinkie is thinking. We only know that he is thinking. And we don't know if Joel Embiid will be able to play basketball. We only know that he can't play right now.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|