Why it pays to gamble on Embiid

Posted: June 27, 2014

BROOKLYN - In all likelihood, the continuously rebuilding Sixers will be drafting in the first hour next June, too. By then, perhaps schoolboy center Ivan Raab will have developed a nasty case of hammertoe, or rickets or a lingering case of scurvy.

Anything, to make him attractive to the Sixers. These days, all they do is acquire big men with health issues.

After all, franchise center Andrew Bynum's knees in 2012 begat No. 5 pick Nerlens Noel's knees in 2013, which begat Joel Embiid's balky back and fractured foot, which is what the Sixers bought with the third overall pick last night.

For the third consecutive summer, the Sixers have asked for their fans' faith and their patience.

For the third consecutive season, the Sixers' main addition might not play a significant minute.

Oh, this was the right pick. If the Sixers are convinced that Embiid's injuries will not be chronic, will not make him Sam Bowie or Greg Oden, then it was the right pick.

In fact, if Embiid is healthy this time next year then any team that considered him too big of a risk misevaluated the situation. Many reports have said the Cavs soured on Embiid with their No. 1 overall pick because of his injuries, that they felt safer taking hyper-talented Kansas teammate and fellow freshman Andrew Wiggins.

If that is true, and if Embiid plays a healthy 10 seasons in the NBA, then the Cavs made a mistake.

If the Sixers had passed on Embiid, and if Embiid had played a healthy 10 NBA seasons, they would have made a mistake, too.


Because the payoff for this gamble is too high.

If the injuries don't turn into a nightmare, Embiid could be the next Dream. Remember, Hakeem Olajuwon was raw when he hit the NBA. He was more polished than Embiid, a volleyball player just 3 years ago, but Olajuwon might have been a better soccer goalie than power forward when he began his career with the Rockets.

Kansas coach Bill Self, who attended last night's draft with Wiggins, believes the Sixers got great value with the pick. Self said Embiid could be an All-Star "six or eight times."

Self said Embiid could develop into a "top-five" big man.

Self called Embiid a "franchise player."

Who wouldn't take that with the No. 3 pick?

Even if it takes a while.

Embiid is still a stranger in a strange land, a 20-year-old who grew into manhood perfecting a new language, learning a new game, living in the quiet and conservative heartland of the United States and, now, in one of the louder, more liberal cities in the Western hemisphere. He will need life-skills guidance.

For example, Self said, "He needs to become more responsible with his eating habits. He doesn't know. He has been Americanized for just 3 years, and he hasn't had family living with him. It seems insignificant, but it will be important over time. He needs to mature."

He seems well-equipped.

"He'll be a fan favorite. He's got more personality than just about anybody," said Self, who observed as Embiid told his Kansas teammates last fall that he had killed a lion in his native Cameroon. "He knows how to make fun of himself. He knows how to make fun of other people. And he's got a smile that will make you melt."

As long as he develops a jump-hook that will make you swoon.

Assuming Embiid gets healthy by Christmas, the Sixers will go from having the least athletic frontcourt in recent NBA history to having the most athletic frontcourt since . . . well, OK, the Clippers are pretty athletic, but Noel and Embiid could be very, very good for a very long time.

Consider: Each was a possible No. 1 overall pick.

Each commands the lane.

Each has gaping holes in his game - Noel can't shoot and has only the rudiments of a post-up game, and there's no real consensus on what Embiid can do - but both play hard and both have unlimited ceilings.

Noel proved the past season during his rehab that he is as ravenous as a pro as he seemed in his single season at Kentucky. What will Embiid do?

"He's got to get stronger. He's only played 3 years. He needs to get better at everything," Self said. "But I don't think I've seen a guy who's better who's only played the sport for 3 years who's at the same stage he's at."

Self said he spoke with Embiid on Wednesday, as well as with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro. The best Embiid hoped for was going sixth, to Boston. The Lakers and Kings, who picked seventh and eighth, each told Self that they thought Embiid could fall to them.

However, after Self spoke with Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie yesterday, Self was assured that Embiid would be taken among the top three.

Before yesterday, Embiid and Self didn't count on the Sixers and their Warren Buffet, limited-risk, long-term reward corporate psyche. Sixers owner Josh Harris is a hedge-fund billionaire; he invests today, then rolls around in profits tomorrow.

Ideally, by the beginning of the 2015-16 season Noel and Embiid will be shot-blocking, rebounding, lane-running demons, fed by rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams and, possibly, by multitalented Serbian forward Dario Saric, whom they snared in a trade with Orlando for No. 10 pick Elfrid Payton. They acquired that No. 10 pick on draft night a year ago, when they traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for the No. 6 pick, which, of course, turned into Noel.

This gives the Sixers four players who will begin the 2015 season with an average age of 22.8 years. Saric, the MVP of the Adriatic League who led his team to the league's title, said he plans to stay in for two more seasons, but he surely will be eager to leave after he sees One and Two Liberty Place owning the rim.

Assuming One Liberty Place can walk and run and jump without a back brace or a walking boot.

"He's just got to get his body right," said Self, who is convinced that Embiid, who dominated the nation's best league, the Big 12, will be sound. "That should happen without any problem."

"He was the best . . . " Self said, then restarted: "He and Andrew were the best two players in our league by the time [Embiid] got hurt."

Embiid did not start in his first eight college games. He flashed insane power and speed for his 7-foot, 250-pound size, but he fouled a lot and disappeared, too; he had five fouls in 12 minutes in a loss to Villanova, his sixth college game. Then, in mid-December, he scored 18 against New Mexico and 17 against Georgetown, and, well, he became a consensus top-three choice.

Then he got hurt, and, of course, he became the Sixers' choice.

Watching Embiid model large, tailored suits on game nights, the way Bynum and Noel did, might make some Sixers fans sick. Self is sure that the better fans will keep that faith, and he is delighted that Embiid landed in a place where his development and healing will be unrushed:

"They're building for the future as opposed to having to win this year. The pieces are in place. I'd be excited if I'm a Sixers fan, even though they're going to have to exercise a little more patience."

Self paused, then quipped:

"Which, I've heard, Philadelphia is known for."

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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