Holding Court - NBA Draft: A big 3 no more?
As recently as five days ago, three players have been conceded the first three slots in this year’s NBA draft to be held this coming Friday (Manila time). Joel Embiid was expected to be taken with the top pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers while Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, in some order, would follow in the next two slots.
But lo and behold, Embiid threw the whole draft process in shambles when it was discovered – no less than by Cleveland doctors – that he had a stress fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot. The seven-foot center underwent surgery over the weekend and had two screws inserted into his foot. Four to six months was the timetable cited for his full recovery.
And so, the Cavaliers, who were expected to open the draft by taking Embiid with the top pick, will most likely not draft Embiid at all, that is, if they decide to keep their pick instead of trading down or giving it away altogether in exchange for a proven star. Bill Simmons reports that the Cavs are now looking at either Parker or Wiggins to tab with the No. 1 pick. “Also hearing Cavs were scared off by Embiid’s foot, now focusing on Jabari or Wiggins (Jabari is the favorite),” Simmons tweeted. “Unbelievable turn of events.” CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger also reported that the Cavs “are said to be leaning toward” Parker at No. 1 overall.
The injury concern about Embiid is real. Already saddled with a stress fracture in the lower back that ended his freshman season at Kansas prematurely, the 20-year-old Cameroonian native is now bothered by another injury even before he has played a single NBA game. One must remember that an NCAA season consists of just 35-40 games, including the postseason tournaments, while an NBA season extends up to 90 games, including exhibition, and could even exceed 100 depending on whether a team goes deep into the playoffs or not.
“I’ve loved Embiid since November, but you couldn’t come up with a scarier big-man injury combination than foot problems and back problems,” Andrew Sharp of Grantland.com said.
Indeed, history shows a navicular foot injury is the scariest of all injuries for a big man, partly because of the pounding the foot is subjected to as a result of the player’s size. Former Houston All-Star Yao Ming (2011), two-time champion and Hall of Famer Bill Walton (1988) and former journeyman center Eric Montross (2003) all had to retire because of that problem. Other big men to suffer a similar injury were Boston Celtics great and Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, former Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas who missed 202 games between 1996 and 2001 because of it, former New York frontliner Kurt Thomas, current Charlotte center Brendan Haywood, and former Seattle and New York center Jerome James. McHale, incidentally, still walks up to now with a limp as a result of that foot injury, on which he continued to play despite its painful fracture in the 1987 NBA finals against the Lakers.
Embiid, who averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in his lone collegiate season, had fared well when he worked out with the Cavaliers earlier this month. He also had a solo workout for NBA teams in Santa Monica, California and wowed them with his footwork and post moves, his athleticism, his soft touch and offensive ceiling as well as shot-blocking and great potential as a defensive stopper. “He is a seven-foot Serge Ibaka,” was Simmons’ assessment of Embiid, who took up the game just four years ago and dabbled in football and volleyball before he got hooked into it.
“Embiid separated himself from everyone else. It wasn’t close,” Sharp said. “There’s no question who the best prospect in the draft is.”
But now, Embiid has to put everything on hold while so many question marks about his health and durability have been raised to put Parker and Wiggins, at the very least, ahead on the list of teams drafting at the top.
Parker, of course, is the most accomplished scorer in the draft along with the nation’s top scorer Doug McDermott, and can help an NBA team immediately. This is why Cleveland has been reported to be leaning now towards drafting him, although majority of the draft boards have pegged his Kansas counterpart and Embiid’s teammate Wiggins going first.
But if the Cavs want immediate help, which seems to be the mindset now after last year’s top pick, Anthony Bennett, bombed out big time while averaging just 4.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 12.8 minutes in 52 games, they’ll take Parker. That is, of course, unless the team is entertaining thoughts of going after former franchise star LeBron James, if and when James decides to opt out of the last two years of his contract with Miami. As Sharp was saying, “If LeBron’s a real goal for the Cavs, why not? They should be calling Flip Saunders every day about Kevin Love. Doesn’t that make a lot more sense than taking Parker or Wiggins to play the same position as LeBron? Or they can flip this pick to the Sixers and try to grab additional picks later in the draft (or a few years of Thad Young). This all depends on how much Cleveland actually likes the other options, but of all the teams at the top, trading has always made more sense for Cleveland than anyone else.”
Assuming Cleveland keeps the top pick and takes Parker, however, the Bucks would then lose the player they’ve wanted all along even with Embiid still projected at the top slot. And this early, Milwaukee may have no choice but to take Wiggins, passing on Embiid whom new co-owner Marc Lasry has already publicly hinted the Bucks would not draft.
Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, who attended Lasry’s appearance at an event held by the Milwaukee Press Club and the Rotary Club of Milwaukee last Monday, tweeted, “Lasry is ruling out Bucks taking Embiid,” quoting him as saying, “Our decision got a lot easier, mainly because Embiid got hurt. It’s hard to take Embiid. We want somebody who is going to help us on Day 1.”
If that is the case, Milwaukee will also be taking a gamble on Wiggins, whom some say doesn’t seem to have the requisite motor and killer’s mentality despite his phenomenal athleticism and talent.
There’s no question, however, that the Bucks would be risking a lot and the ire of their fan base if they pass on Wiggins so chances are they won’t dare do that.
That would then put the onus on the owner of the third pick, Philadelphia, which will be faced with the choice of drafting an unquestionably transcendent talent with potentially career-threatening health issues, Embiid, and Dante Exum, the Australian Under-19 Team star who is touted as the next great international talent following in the footsteps of Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Many Ginobili.
The 6-6 Exum, a point guard like the Sixers’ Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, has definitely benefitted from Embiid’s health issues and has risen up the draft boards while breaking the Big Three notion prior to Embiid’s foot injury. He has the versatility to team up with Carter-Williams in a big backcourt that can lead the 76ers over the next decade.
One reason Philadelphia will likely pass on Embiid at No. 3 is the fact that the Sixers have another big man they drafted last year, Nerlens Noel, who is also recuperating from injury and did not play a single game last year. Would the Sixers run the risk of drafting an injured big man, no matter how talented, for two consecutive years? Highly unlikely.
So where does Embiid now fall? Orlando and Utah, which own the next two picks at No. 4 and No. 5, are two teams that are stacked with promising young centers. The Magic have seven-foot Nikola Vucevic, who averaged a team-second-best 14.2 points and 11.0 rebounds last season, his third. The Jazz, meanwhile, have 6-10 Derrick Favors, a five-year veteran who also dabbled at the “four” spot while averaging 13.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.48 blocks last year, along with 6-11 Enes Kanter, a three-year pro who normed 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds last year.
Would these ballclubs risk a high draft pick in a loaded class by filling a position of minimal need with a highly-risky choice, even with the talent of Embiid? Also unlikely.
That leaves us with the No. 6 pick owned by the Celtics, who under Danny Ainge have not been afraid to take a flyer – or at least a calculated gamble – in picking or trading for players. This was demonstrated by Ainge in those deals involving Antoine Walker, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, or in drafting players with medical red flags like Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger.
If Embiid falls all the way down to No. 6, there’s more than a good chance Boston will take him. Ainge himself has declared that the Celts’ greatest need is a rim protector, something Embiid will provide if and when he recovers from his physical maladies. Reports, in fact, have suggested that Embiid’s agent, Arn Tellem, has indicated that if Embiid is not taken first, he will try to steer him down to either Boston or the LA Lakers, who own the seventh pick. He might not need to even think of LA if Ainge intends to swoop down on his prized youngster, as indeed the Celts’ president would likely do.
That would be an ideal fit for Embiid if it happens. He could end up in a better situation, where the team he’d play for – again assuming he will recover from his injuries and will stay healthy – is located in a big market and has a rich tradition. This, of course, is on top of the fact that the Celtics would allow him to recover and subsequently develop within the program – without the pressure of being the lone top dog expected to bring his franchise to the promised land.
The only downside to this scenario is that Embiid wouldn’t be able to recoup the money he’d lose. Jim Marchiony, an associate athletic director at Kansas, confirmed that the school bought a $5 million insurance policy, the maximum allowed under the NCAA insurance program, through the NCAA Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund, which allows schools to apply for need-based assistance on behalf of their players. But that policy does not allow for loss-of-value insurance, a rider attached to insurance policies that allows athletes to collect if they fall far enough in the draft from their projected position at the time they sign the policy. Athletes can only get loss-of-value policies if they go outside the NCAA program to do so.
No more Big Three? That doesn’t necessarily sound so bad for Joel Embiid, the top talent of the 2014 draft who could eventually end up as its symbol – for better or for worse.
Here’s the order of drafting for both the first and second rounds (assuming no trades are made prior to the draft):
1. Cleveland, 2. Milwaukee, 3. Philadelphia, 4. Orlando, 5. Utah, 6. Boston, 7. LA Lakers, 8. Sacramento, 9. Charlotte (from Detroit), 10. Philadelphia (from New Orleans), 11. Denver, 12. Orlando (from New York via Denver), 13. Minnesota, 14. Phoenix, 15. Atlanta, 16. Chicago (from Charlotte), 17. Boston (from Brooklyn), 18. Phoenix (from Washington), 19. Chicago, 20. Toronto, 21. Oklahoma City (from Dallas via Houston and LAL), 22. Memphis, 23. Utah (from Golden State), 24. Charlotte (from Portland), 25. Houston, 26. Miami, 27. Phoenix (from Indiana), 28. LA Clippers, 29. Oklahoma City, 30. San Antonio.
31. Milwaukee, 32. Philadelphia, 33. Cleveland (from Orlando), 34. Dallas (from Boston), 35. Utah, 36. Milwaukee (from LAL via Minnesota and Phoenix), 37. Toronto (from Sacramento), 38. Detroit, 39. Philadelphia (from Cleveland), 40. Minnesota (from New Orleans), 41. Denver, 42. Houston (from New York), 43. Atlanta, 44. Minnesota, 45. Charlotte, 46. Washington, 47. Philadelphia (from Brooklyn via Dallas and Boston), 48. Milwaukee (from Toronto via Phoenix), 49. Chicago, 50. Phoenix, 51. Dallas, 52. Philadelphia (from Memphis via Cleveland), 53. Minnesota (from Golden State), 54. Philadelphia (from Houston via Milwaukee), 55. Miami, 56. Denver (from Portland), 57. Indiana, 58. San Antonio (from LAC via New Orleans), 59. Toronto (from Oklahoma City via New York), 60. San Antonio.
Phoenix has three first-round picks, the 14th, 18th and 27th, while Philadelphia (No. 3 and No. 10), Orlando (No. 4 and No. 12), Utah (No. 5 and No. 23), Boston (No. 6 and No. 17), Charlotte (No. 9 and No. 24), Chicago (16th and 19th) and Oklahoma City (21st and 29th) have two apiece. As a result, nine teams – Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Brooklyn, Washington, Dallas, Golden State, Portland and Indiana – have no first-round picks.
The most likely lottery picks, based on the consensus of some of the best mock drafts, are small forward Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, small forward Jabari Parker of Duke, center Joel Embiid of Kansas, Australian point guard Dante Exum, point guard Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, power forward Noah Vonleh of Indiana, power forward Julius Randle of Kentucky, power-small forward Aaron Gordon of Arizona, small forward Doug McDermott of Creighton, shooting guard Nik Stauskas of Michigan, point guard Gary Harris of Michigan State, point guard Elfrid Payton of Louisiana-Lafayette, small forward Rodney Hood of Duke, and power forward Adreian Payne of Michigan State.
Croatian small forward Dario Saric would have easily been a top 14 pick but he has signed a two-year contract, with an option for a third year, with Turkish club Anadolu Efes. Prognosticators thus fear he will slide out of the lottery as a result.
SHORTSHOTS: Twenty players have been invited by the league to the green room for the draft proceedings at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, an indication that these players are expected to be called in the first round. The prospects invited are Tyler Ennis, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, Zach LaVine, Doug McDermott, Shabazz Napier, Jusuf Nurkic, Jabari Parker, Adreian Payne, Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, Dario Saric, Marcus Smart, Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh, T.J. Warren, Andrew Wiggins and James Young. Notably absent among the invitees is Joel Embiid, who can’t fly for 10 days to two weeks after surgery in his right foot… There are many more players invited to the green room in this year’s draft, an indication that the 2014 class is really loaded. Previous years have seen only from 13-14 invitees… Seven-foot-1 Baylor center Isaiah Austin saw his dream of playing in the NBA dashed completely when he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue and prevents the afflicted individual from taking part in strenuous exercise to avoid overtaxing the heart. Austin was nevertheless invited by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to attend the draft as a special guest. What a class act by Silver. Austin has actually been legally blind in his right eye but was previously expected to be drafted in the second round. He took out a $1 million insurance policy through the NCAA’s elite athlete insurance program and is now expected to collect the amount because of his total disability. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.