He was being compared to Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, with whispers he had the athleticism and footwork of all-time great Hakeem Olajuwon.
Then it was announced a week before the NBA Draft that Kansas center Joel Embiid had suffered a stress fracture to the navicular bone in his right foot.
Just like that, the 7-foot, 240-pound Embiid went from the odds-on favorite to be taken by the Cavaliers with the first pick to a guy who might not go in the top three selections Thursday night.
“He’s not a possibility at one, I don’t believe,” ProfessionalBasketballDraft.com founder and SheridanHoops.com draft analyst Joe Kotoch said. “I could see them trading this pick more now than before. What I find intriguing is don’t sleep on them trading with Philly and taking Embiid at three with an additional asset.”
Even before the foot injury, there were concerns surrounding the 20-year-old Embiid, a Cameroon native with amazing athletic ability who has been playing basketball for just three years.
A stress fracture in his back sidelined Embiid late in his freshman season at Kansas. The general consensus was that he would not face any long-term issues or require surgery because of that, but then the foot injury surfaced.
“Look, he’s a big man and he’s had an issue with his foot and his back,” Kotoch said. “You have to keep that in the back of your mind now. If it was just his back, fine. Two injuries in a short period of time, you have to think about that.”
Basketball wise, NBA teams love Embiid’s size, athleticism and work ethic, but, like most young big men, he will need time to develop offensively.
Embiid averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 2.6 blocks in just 23.1 minutes while shooting .626 from the field and .665 from the line last season.
“The instincts that he shows really segue into the next level,” NBA scouting director Ryan Blake said. “He’s a long, athletic big man and he moves very well. He’s a rim-protector and he’s developing a good offensive game.”
The comparisons with Ibaka, a first-team All-Defensive pick the last three seasons, are threefold: Embiid is a natural shot-blocker, can run the court and has displayed the ability to face the basket and hit mid-range jumpers.
“He’s going to be good in the open court in transition,” Kotoch said. “He’s probably not a guy you’re going to call plays for on Day One, but as he gets stronger and develops, he can be an offensive piece in the post.”
The latter is where the Olajuwon whispers begin. Embiid’s skill set leads some scouts to believe he could not only be a dominating defensive player, but a tremendous scorer in the low post.
“He could be a Serge Ibaka type, but you always compare to the great,” Blake said. “It’s hard to predict, but you see glimpses of Olajuwon’s footwork and instincts. Those are the things that jump out.”
More mistakes have been made taking big men at the top of the draft than at any other position, but Embiid could make teams regret they passed on him — if he stays healthy.
“You’re getting a guy who could really be something special,” Kotoch said. “He works hard and he really puts in the time to develop himself.
“I feel very comfortable in saying that with Joel Embiid, you’re going to get a player who is going to be very aggressive in terms of improving. With that kind of work ethic, the sky’s the limit.”