KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Joel Embiid didn’t even want to be here. Not really. That’s the part about Thursday’s little knife-twist that breaks your heart.
You can’t shake the feeling that this whole "NBA Draft" thing was everybody’s idea but his. You can’t shake the feeling that if Big No. 21 had his druthers, he’d still be in Lawrence, dunking on freshmen, smiling, laughing, snatching drinks from the cooler in the media work room at Allen Fieldhouse, and generally enjoying life as a Kansas Jayhawk, a big fish in the smallest, warmest pond on the prairie.
Instead, the kid’s a tech stock, it’s 2000 all over again, and look out below.
"I think he wanted to come back," Kansas basketball coach Bill Self had intimated earlier this spring, right after his preposterously gifted freshman center declared for the pros. "If college was paying $5 million a year and the NBA was paying $5 million a year, there’s no question what he would’ve done."
College isn’t — although get back to us once the Ed O’Bannon trial is over — so JoJo went propro, and ne’er the twain. The Embiid Express had been picking up speed in recent weeks, especially after a late-May workout in California that left the loudest mouthpieces in the NBA media world drooling. As of Wednesday night, reports out of Cleveland, where the Cavs hold the No. 1 pick for something like the seventh straight season, were mixed, but generally leaning the former Jayhawk’s way.
So, basically, in a span of a few hours, Embiid went from being the first guy out of the green room to skipping The Adam Silver Hat Dance entirely. From running through "The Flats" district with Johnny Manziel to … well, Lord only knows.
Before Thursday, the 20-year-old Embiid was already a high-stakes gamble, probably the biggest in the 2014 draft pool. The ceiling was (and still is) insanely high; 7-footers cannot physically do what a healthy Embiid can do — twist, spin, elevate, box out, shoot threes, you name it. But the Cameroon native also comes with a history of chronic back problems — including a stress fracture that ended his season before the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments — that date all the way back to high school in Florida.
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If you have the best medical support in the world in house, and the patience to ride out any speed bumps, you take Embiid, crossing your fingers with one hand and clutching your rosaries with the other.
If you want something safe, something sure, take Jabari Parker. Or Embiid’s KU teammate, Andrew Wiggins.
So risk now begets more risk, where Embiid is concerned, and No. 21’s draft position and, indeed, the first round itself, have become intertwined in all kinds of crazy flux. JoJo could still go at No. 1. Or No. 2. Or 3. Or 17. Or 28. June 26 just went from wild after, oh, pick No. 7 to, potentially, straight-up bonkers right from the get-go.
And what was a hop of faith has turned into a bona fide leap. There is precedent in trust, of course: Four months after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, New Orleans took Nerlens Noel out of Kentucky with the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, then flipped him to Philadelphia, where he sat out the entire, woebegone, 2013-14 campaign.
There ain’t much, as far as silver linings go, but there’s that. Plus, perhaps Embiid slips to a franchise that won’t necessarily lean on him as a savior, won’t throw the entire weight of a city on his broad shoulders. Maybe he can find a comfort zone, find the footing at his own pace, in a town where he can look forward instead of back.
Mind you, it’s going to be awfully, awfully hard for Embiid not to look back. Especially now.
"He loves it (in Lawrence)," Self said. "The college, the people around him. I think, sometimes, when you don’t have your family close, sometimes you get even closer to people that are with you. I think that’s what made it a hard decision. I also think not playing in the (NCAA) tournament made it a harder decision."
The spirit has never truly been on board with this. After Thursday, you start to wonder if the body ever will be, either.