joelembiid
University of Kansas center Joel Embiid.

With the NBA Draft (June 26) approaching fast, University of Kansas center Joel Embiid picked the worst time to come up injured, again. Reports surfaced late last week that a physical exam had discoved that Embiid had injured his foot, which needed two screw inserts in surgery June 13. The recovery time is slated to range from four to six months, potentially costing him a chance to be healthy at the start the National Basketball Association(NBA) season in late October. And with two enticing prospects– forwards Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins—graded as worthy of top overall selections, Embiid’s value could take a tremendous slide in a top-heavy draft. Once pegged as a near-lock for the first name selected, Embiid’s injury will cast major doubt on him,  considering the injury history of past big men who came into the league and floundered with foot injuries. However, the 20-year-old, seven-footer has already been cleared by doctors to return to basketball and that news alone should be enough for the Cameroon native to hear his name selected first on draft night.

Despite passing the early eye tests, neither Parker nor Wiggins offer what Embiid does in terms of size and defense. The NBA has always been played from a mindset of defense first, just ask the San Antonio Spurs for example. Tim Duncan’s legacy in San Antonio will never have the allure of some of the other greats but his low post scoring and defense anchored an upper-echelon team for over a decade. Embiid’s injury history might be comparable to former top pick Greg Oden, but Oden never had Embiid’s build, athletic grace or mobility. Embiid’s late-season back injury was scary enough for some scouts so no doubt his latest foot injury will definitely close the door for him in most teams’ eyes but for an athlete who’s only been playing basketball for a few seasons, the upside, potential and intrigue is definitely there. In-season comparisons slotted Embiid’s name next to David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, both game-changing, franchise centers. Sitting out a season to recover wouldn’t be a time-killer for a 20-year-old.

The fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the top pick puts the franchise in a bind. They’re already set at point guard with Kyrie Irving but team injuries have ravaged the team amid increasing impatience from a fan base that is desperate for instant impact. But let’s say Embiid returns healthy, whether it’s this season or the next, pairing him with Irving gives the Cavs the most intriguing up-and-coming point guard-center combination in the league. Both players are less than 23years-old. Of course, the fallout if Embiid doesn’t come back healthy would be disastrous for the franchise. But that’s what the NBA draft is: one big crap shoot.

Cleveland won’t be mocked if they play it safe and select either Parker or Wiggins but as far as the real gamble is concerned,  all the gold belongs in Embiid’s back pocket. The moves, the grace and the awareness he showed as a freshmen was at times breathtaking. His numbers (11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game) didn’t jump off the page but considering it was his first season playing college basketball and just his fourth year in the sport, after arriving in the U.S. at age 16, the potential was obvious.

Growing up with the heavy habits of a soccer and volleyball player gave Embiid his agility and athleticism, and at the tender age of 20, he’s barely scratched the surface on a basketball career. The foot injury will no doubt be a setback but the time away from the hardwood could be good for Embiid as he learns the nuances of the professional game. There are several cases in NBA draft history where bigs were taken over wings and the selecting teams lived to pay for it. Sam Bowie was taken over Michael Jordan in 1984 while Oden was drafted ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007. And while both instances were colossal mistakes, the Cavs shouldn’t rely on history to alter their thinking. Cleveland needs to win now, no doubt, but the long-term solution for the franchise will definitely be passed on if the Cavaliers decide to let a couple of errors in draft history dictate passing on the most talented center to enter  the NBA draft in quite some time.