Just days ago he went from being someone's potential franchise center to being the center of unwanted attention. Welcome to the Joel Embiid draft, where the immediate question is no longer how fast he'll develop, but how far he'll fall.
Put yourself in the same position as several teams who are furiously reworking their draft plans and scenarios as we speak. Would you devote millions of dollars and a lottery selection to a 7-foot big man who just had surgery on a sensitive part of his right foot and might redshirt his rookie season? Or would you pass on a freakish center who might overcome the injury to become the best player in a robust draft?
It's a decision that will dramatize Thursday's draft and will generate plenty of hope and also feelings of doom within the fan base of the team that eventually takes him. Understand that this is the Age of the Injury in the NBA, where at least a half-dozen stars have missed lots of games, and even complete seasons, and that's if they're lucky. Others have seen their careers vanish, and it all makes for a frightening time for teams with serious thoughts on taking Embiid.
A refresher: Embiid underwent surgery last Friday, when two screws were placed in the navicular bone. He could miss anywhere from four to six months, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he sits out the 2014-15 season as a precaution, as Nerlens Noel did last season in Philly after knee surgery. The foot injury made his back injury, which caused him to miss the NCAA tournament for Kansas, look like a paper cut. Embiid's pre-draft workouts seemed to squash fears about his back, but this? Not so fast.
A big man with a repaired foot could be a bad combination. No need to flash way back to Bill Walton, because medical procedures have improved since Walton was leveled in 1978. The two most recent examples of centers who suffered Embiid's injury are Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Yao never recovered, while Ilgauskas managed to play 10 years after surgery and make two All-Star teams. So it's a mixed bag, really. Nobody knows how Embiid's body will respond. Given his age, his healing process could be perfectly normal and trouble-free, or could cause issues throughout his career.
Well before that mystery is resolved, another awaits: Who's gonna take the chance on him?
Here's the reaction of one scout: "I'll give you two guarantees. The Cavs won't take him No. 1 and the Sixers won't pass on him with their second pick in the round at 10."
That appears to be a rather safe if not reasonable assumption. If Embiid drops out of the top three and begins to drift toward near the bottom of the lottery, some team will get jumpy. Remember, he was virtually all set for the No. 1 pick before he took a physical in Cleveland and the results came back grim. He's too much of a talent to ignore: An unpolished and athletic seven-footer with delicious defensive instincts, who's nimble around the basket and also brings shooting range despite only playing four years of organized basketball. There are so many possibilities for Embiid to top out as a dynamic, once-in-a-lifetime player.
Of course, there's the flip side: This is a deep draft and a team that takes Embiid would pass on a player who could be a difference-maker. And maybe he won't be a special player, anyway. If the draft was weak, more teams could justify rolling the dice., even at the top. The Clippers waited a year on Blake Griffin and he turned out OK, although his was a different injury (fractured kneecap).
Also, understand that rebuilding teams must sell their plan to the public and can't afford to make a big draft mistake which could set the franchise back years. That's what the top six or seven teams are up against. The right decision could mean a 10-year run as a contender; the wrong one could cripple progress and anger the customers.
And so, with that, we examine how the Embiid Issue will fall (excuse the pun):
1. Cavaliers. They can ill afford a blunder, not after losing LeBron James four years ago, drafting Anthony Bennett No. 1 last summer and dealing with the Andrew Bynum disaster last season. Besides, with Andrew Wiggins around, why gamble?
2. Bucks. In some respects, Embiid's injury made their decision easier. They can take Wiggins or Jabari Parker, whoever's left between the two, and sleep soundly on draft night.
3. Sixers. Here's where it gets funky. Before Embiid's injury, the Sixers figured they'd have an outside shot at Wiggins, the player they want, or settle for Parker, a player they could use. But now? Hard to see them using their top pick to redshirt a big man for the second straight year, though they're not exactly in win-now mode, so waiting wouldn't be too damaging. They could also take Australian phenom Dante Exum, pair him in the backcourt with Michael Carter-Williams and sweat it out, hoping Embiid falls to 10.
4. Magic. Yet another team that can't afford a setback, the Magic do have a solid young center in Nik Vucevic. They've been there and done that with foot injuries with Grant Hill, and if they're not spooked out by that experience, they could take a gamble.
5. Jazz. What do they have to lose? Very little, right? Remember, Utah is one of those places that will never be high on the wish list of free agents, so the Jazz must be creative in the hunt for talent. It wouldn't shock anyone if Embiid winds up here, although Noah Vonleh is healthier and almost as athletic.
6. Celtics. If the Celtics keep this pick, they'll take an awfully hard look at Embiid who, in a best-case scenario, could restore shine to a great franchise. This is a move that Red Auerbach would make in a snap, and for Danny Ainge or any GM, that's the ultimate endorsement.
7. Lakers. They always seem to find the next great player as soon as their current one is ready to leave. Of course, that was when Jerry Buss was still alive. Jim Buss needs to do something bold other than give Kobe Bryant a $42 million parting gift. A mistake, one way or another, could solidify the Lakers as the second-best team in town.
8. Kings. They could use a big splash to re-energize the fan base, especially with a new arena planned. But they're tied to DeMarcus Cousins, for better or worse, and have so many other needs.
9. Hornets. The last time this franchise had a shot at drafting a franchise big man, they finished second in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and settled for Emeka Okafor. We know how that turned out. Howard rebuilt the Magic and played for a championship, Okafor lost a ton of games in Charlotte. With Al Jefferson around to keep the center position warm for another few years, they'd probably grab Embiid without hesitation.
10. Sixers. If you have two shots at Embiid, suddenly it's not a gamble anymore.
"Selling Embiid to your owner, your coach and your fans all depends on what stage you're at in your development," said the scout. "One of those teams near the top will find that easier to do than others. There will always be teams that would rather play it safe and not deal with all the second-guessing and criticism if they fail, and others who'll jump. I do know that a GM will either become a genius or lose his job over this."
The scout said he wouldn't be surprised if Embiid has already been told by at least one team that he won't get past them. Or at least that pledge will happen in the next few days, once evaluations are finalized and teams can learn more about Embiid and also feel which way the wind is blowing within their decision-makers.
The intrigue starts Thursday and most likely with the No. 3 pick. If the Sixers, comforted by an additional pick in the top-10, take the chance on Embiid, then he'll wind up going where he was projected all along: top three. If not, there will be plenty of scrambling, not only by teams holding lottery picks, but others trying to trade into the lottery to get Embiid. Imagine that for a moment. Could it be that a player who just suffered a serious and untimely injury would suddenly become … most wanted? That would be the biggest and most unexpected surprise of the night.