Will Sixers gamble on Embiid?

Beware the big man's curse if the Sixers roll the dice on Joel Embiid.
Beware the big man's curse if the Sixers roll the dice on Joel Embiid. (JAMIE SQUIRE / Getty Images)
Posted: June 25, 2014

The 76ers reportedly are still considering Joel Embiid for the third pick in Thursday's NBA draft, despite the stress fracture to his right foot.

But is that a wise pick?

When healthy, the former Kansas center has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. But Embiid has also been compared to Yao Ming, another 7-footer whose career was cut short by the same injury.

Embiid, who was widely regarded as the front-runner for the No. 1 overall pick, had surgery on Friday and is expected to miss up to six months.

The Sixers aren't afraid of acquiring centers with ailments. They got rookie center Nerlens Noel and a first-round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans during last year's draft in exchange for all-star point guard Jrue Holiday. Noel missed the entire season while recovering from a left anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered during his lone season at Kentucky.

The Sixers don't expect to be competitive for at least another two seasons. So they could sit Embiid before bringing him along slowly.

But there's a chance this injury hinders his career the way it has for other 7-footers. Like Embiid, Yao suffered a stress fracture of the navicular bone, in 2008 and again in 2009. Yao eventually was forced to retire in 2011 because of it.

Hall of Famer Bill Walton played just 14 games in the 1978 season before missing the next two seasons with the injury. Walton was never the same player after he returned. And the stress fracture later led to ankle problems.

Eric Montross was also forced to retire because of the injury. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was sidelined 202 games because of it. And Brendan Haywood hasn't played since the end of the 2012-13 campaign as a result of the injury.

But some teams will be willing to gamble on Embiid.

"He's a natural athlete to go along with this athletic combination of intrigue," a Western Conference executive said of Embiid before learning of the foot injury. "He runs the floor like a guard. He explodes off the floor, and it looks natural. The greats have that kind of stuff."

In what was his third year of basketball, Embiid began this past season in a reserve role for the Jayhawks. He rapidly improved and eventually shared the national spotlight with fellow freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins, who could become the first pick.

Embiid went on to average 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks. At season's end, he was regarded as college basketball's best big man.

"He has a huge upside," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "He's got an upside that you would think would be like Olajuwon, 7-foot tall, long athlete, [good] feet, skilled, timing, toughness. He's got it all."

His body type and feel for the game contrast to that of most African post players coming into the NBA, according to the Western Conference executive.

"He can pass," said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You look at some of these other guys like Dikembe Mutombo. They just had an awkwardly gangliness [when they were drafted]. They got stronger."

But the executive thinks Embiid can be more like Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan and Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond.

"If he's 245 pounds now, maybe he goes up to 265," the executive said, "but runs the floor like a gazelle, outruns his opponents. It's just like the grace he brings with his athleticism, not just power. But there's a pizzazz there and he's got a decent shooting touch, and he's supposed to be a great kid."

Self took it a step further, describing Embiid as "a free spirit, fun, a very, very, very open, honest guy that's basically a practical joker that enjoys life."

Embiid's personality was on display Friday when he took a selfie before and during his foot operation.

While he's a fun-loving person, time will tell if he'll become the next Olajuwon or Yao.

So the question is: Will the Sixers gamble on Embiid to find out?


kpompey@phillynews.com

@PompeyOnSixers

inquirer.com/deepsixer

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