Joel Embiid once killed a lion in Cameroon. At least, that’s what he told his teammates at Kansas last summer before he ever suited up for the Jayhawks. Because most were naive to life in Embiid’s native country, and were less familiar with the fact that he hailed from an upper-middle class neighborhood in Yaounde, a city of nearly 2 million people, the tale initially went unchallenged and started to develop a life of its own.
First, Embiid told them that he slayed the lion with his bare hands. Then, he told them that he used a spear. The more Embiid shared the story, the more holes began to show until it eventually just became part of the playful personality that made him a favorite in the locker room and throughout Lawrence.
“He tried that story for a long time. He killed a lion and all that stuff,” Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts said with a laugh in a telephone interview. “That guy, he couldn’t kill a marshmallow. He’s a great kid, though. He’s got personality. He was a kid here, the fans will be talking about for many years.”
And Roberts can certainly vouch that Embiid’s talent, which he displayed during his only season in college, is very real and helped him make an almost mythological rise from a former soccer and volleyball player who picked up the game just three years ago to becoming arguably the best prospect in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Until he fractured the navicular bone in his right foot last week, Embiid — a 7-foot, 250-pound center who moves gracefully across the court, has the potential to dominate a game defensively and draws comparisons to Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon — was projected to go No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Embiid will undoubtedly slide, with the Cavaliers now debating internally whether to select Duke’s Jabari Parker or Embiid’s college teammate, Andrew Wiggins, and Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry already ruling out his team as a landing spot at second overall. How far Embiid will drop is the question among league executives as they debate an injury that has created considerable uncertainty and intrigue in advance of Adam Silver’s first NBA draft as commissioner.
At least one executive said he could foresee Embiid falling out of the top 10, while others don’t anticipate a severe drop. “Risk is the issue. You can never eliminate risk. All you can do is try to manage it intelligently. I think that guy has a chance to really be good,” an Eastern Conference scout said of Embiid, who averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks during his freshman season. “I might take that risk. I understand why Cleveland might not want to do it at number one, but . . . if Embiid falls out of the top three, somebody at four, five or six, wherever he goes, they are getting a steal.”
No matter which team decides to take a chance on Embiid, he won’t even be able to walk across the stage to shake hands with Silver because he was prohibited from flying after having two screws inserted into his foot last Friday in Los Angeles, where he had been training. The surgical procedure will reportedly keep Embiid sidelined for four to six months.
Kenyon Martin still went No. 1 overall in 2000 after breaking his leg in the NCAA tournament a few months earlier. Alex Len and Nerlens Noel were both selected in the top six last June despite recovering from a broken foot and a torn anterior cruciate ligament, respectively. Those injuries also kept both from going first overall to Cleveland.
But injuries to the same bone have been devastating to big men such as Yao Ming and Bill Walton. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had his career stunted for several years as he recovered and later became a two-time all-star. Michael Jordan also suffered the same injury in his second season but managed to turn out fine. “Is he the guy that it doesn’t affect?” an Eastern Conference executive said of Embiid. “At some point, he’ll have a chance to get on the floor, but how long will he last? Who’s to say he’s not going to be the one guy or in the small minority that’s fine?”
But with Embiid, the concern for one executive for a lottery team goes deeper than his foot. Embiid also missed the conclusion of his first season and the NCAA tournament after having a stress fracture in his lower back. The lack of durability while playing basketball for such a short amount of time is a serious red flag.
“These are inhibiting injuries that spell doom,” the executive said. “I fully expect him to drop out of the top 10. If I were [the Philadelphia 76ers], I wouldn’t [take him at No. 3]. There is so much more I’ve got to do than risk a guy who is potentially an injury-prone guy who might not see the light of day in the NBA. . . . Let’s not forget. Embiid, though he is regarded by many as the best prospect, he’s far from a finished product. And [he] has played less than one full year of college basketball. This guy has a chance to be a zero. If you use a top 10 pick on this guy, you are putting your professional reputation on the line.”
The difference between going first and 10th is roughly $6 million over the first three years, and the first year could potentially be gone. The Eastern Conference executive felt each organization has to determine whether the player chosen instead of Embiid will have a big enough impact to warrant passing on him.
“That’s what makes it tough. It’s one of those things, everybody that passes on him will be second-guessed after the fact. If four or five years from now, the guy is healthy and tearing up the league. Whoever you select, he may not be what Embiid becomes,” the executive said. “Although it may be a decent basketball player, it’s probably not going to move the needle in terms of wins and losses. Can I afford to wait and get the guy who turns out to be the top player in the class?”
Roberts was instrumental in recruiting Embiid to Kansas and recalls convincing Kansas Coach Bill Self to watch Embiid at an open scrimmage at The Rock, a private school in Gainesville, Fla., where Embiid spent his senior year. Self watched silently for almost an hour as Embiid glided up and down the floor. Roberts asked Self what he thought, and Self replied, “Are you kidding me? This guy is going to be the number one pick in the draft in two years. This guy is unbelievable. This guy is going to be one of the most important recruits we’re going to get.”
Embiid didn’t disappoint in his short time at Kansas. Roberts said the NBA team that drafts Embiid won’t have any regrets, either.
“It’s going to be a lot of teams that regret not taking him,” Roberts said. “He’ll come back. He’s got a terrific work ethic. He loves to play. He wants to be on the court. He’ll be terrific.”