For the last few months, Joel Embiid has been the popular answer to the question, “Who’s No. 1?”
He’s since been downgraded to “Who’s No. 4?” or even “Who’s No. 11?”
Embiid could be selected almost anywhere in the 2014 NBA draft on Thursday. Once the prohibitive favorite to be the No. 1 pick — though not in NESN.com’s more recent mock drafts — Embiid is now a complete dice roll due to a fractured foot that could keep him sidelined up to six months. Some scared executives are saying they won’t even take him with a top-10 pick.
Some team will draft Embiid, however, because even with the deep valley of risk, the mountainous reward is just as great. There hasn’t been a No. 1 prospect with this wide a risk-reward swing since Chinese behemoth Yao Ming and high schooler Kwame Brown went first in back-to-back years more than a decade ago. And that is why Embiid remains such a tantalizing pick.
On one hand, Embiid’s foot injury was excellent news for a team like the Boston Celtics, which holds the No. 6 pick. It is now reasonable to think Embiid might be on the board when Boston’s pick comes up, and grabbing a 7-footer who has been compared to Hakeem Olajuwon at sixth would be one of the biggest steals in draft history. Given the potential payoff, most people would snatch up Embiid there without a second thought.
Imagine Embiid’s latest injury was not disclosed last week, but several months ago. Imagine Embiid’s bad back and foot were common knowledge throughout the draft preparation process, and that Embiid would still be out the same amount of time after draft day. (Remember, we’re using our imaginations.) Embiid might never have been in the conversation at No. 1, while the Celtics would have been wringing their hands for months over whether Embiid was worth the risk at No. 6. Any high lottery pick, not just the first overall pick, can be disastrous if a team blows it.
The list of big men who suffered foot injuries and never were the same is long and worrisome: Yao, Bill Walton, Kevin McHale and the name that causes shudders in anyone considering drafting Embiid, Sam Bowie. But medicine advances. A broken leg, which was devastating (among other issues) for Bowie, hardly slowed down Kenyon Martin. DeJuan Blair has played five professional seasons without ACLs. Maybe Embiid is the turning point in the foot-related fates of NBA big men.
Or maybe not. Whichever team drafts Embiid on Thursday will be taking a leap of faith, and assuming all the possibilities — beneficial or disastrous — that come with it.
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