All along, as we watched Joel Embiid’s exponential growth as a player in his one college season at Kansas, we were as tantalized by his enormous possibilities as we were worried about his red flags.
This is a kid who took up the game of basketball three years ago and, at least until the report of a foot injury surfaced Thursday, was considered the likely No. 1 pick in next week’s NBA draft. He is a raw but incredible athlete, an intimidating defensive presence, and has been soaking up new offensive skills like a sponge.
If his health checked out — a back problem was the concern until recently — we were told he could become the next Hakeem Olajuwon.
But now, with a right foot that his agent told FOX Sports 1/Yahoo NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski on Thursday is broken and requires surgery, we might need to worry if the proper comparison for Embiid ends up being not Olajuwon but instead the man taken one spot later in the 1984 NBA draft.
It’s a comparison that’s as worrisome as it is unfair. Bowie is widely considered one of the biggest draft busts in sports history. He had the unfortunate luck of being the second overall pick in possibly the greatest draft of all time, a draft that included four future Hall of Famers, and his bad luck was compounded by a career defined by multiple broken legs, lingering foot problems and unfilled potential.
So it is unfair to mention the 20-year-old Embiid, who hasn’t played a game in the NBA, in the same sentence as Bowie. Right now he’s simply a question mark. But the weeks leading up to the NBA draft can be an exercise in educated prophesizing, filled with unfair but valuable comparisons. And Embiid’s recent history of back injuries and now a foot injury is worrisome – so worrisome that an NBA insider told me there’s no way a team will take him with a top-five pick in one of the deepest drafts in years.
Even as it was reported Thursday that Embiid was consulting with a Los Angeles orthopedist, you had to assume the worst. Why would Embiid’s agent, Arn Tellem, admit to any injury one week before the draft unless it was something that absolutely couldn’t be hidden?
Later in the day, Wojnarowski confirmed the injury was a stress fracture and that Embiid will go into surgery Friday. He’ll miss the remainder of his workouts and won’t attend next week’s draft in New York.
“Can’t draft him,” the insider told me. “Will never get on the court. Too brittle. Can’t plan around him when there’s this many red flags before he ever plays a single game.”
The bigger a basketball player is, the bigger these sorts of red flags loom in NBA minds. A short history of leg and foot problems with 7-footers is enough to give teams pause.
There’s Bowie, perhaps the biggest NBA draft bust of all time. He broke his legs in consecutive seasons, and lingering leg and foot problems killed his promising career.
Bill Walton broke his foot the season after he was the 1977 Finals MVP for the Portland Trail Blazers and was never the same. A series of foot and ankle injuries caused Yao Ming to miss 250 games his final six seasons and ended the Houston Rockets’ title hopes. Greg Oden was one of the most hyped draft prospects of all time, but the 2008 top pick’s balky knees gave Bowie some competition for “biggest bust ever” status. And Kevin McHale played on a broken foot in the 1987 playoffs after a season where he averaged 26.1 points and 9.9 rebounds. He never reached that level again.
Remember when the Blazers drafted Greg Oden over Kevin Durant back in 2008? They probably can’t forget.
Even before the stress fracture, Embiid was always a gambler’s pick. The nagging back issue — a stress fracture in his lower back — that caused him to miss the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments was always a concern. But conventional wisdom among insiders the past several weeks, after Embiid wowed scouts in workouts, was that his back was no longer considered an issue.
A week ago, one NBA insider told me Embiid was a lock for the Cleveland Cavaliers with the top pick.
Now, every mock draft is as broken as Embiid’s foot. Perhaps Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins goes first. Perhaps Duke’s Jabari Parker. The Cavaliers have scheduled the unproven Australian combo guard Dante Exum for a workout even though the idea of Exum at No. 1 was ludicrous 24 hours ago.
Be certain of this: Today, Embiid is as much of a lock not to go No. 1 to the Cavs as he was a lock to go No. 1 yesterday.
Remember this piece of history, too: One year ago, the Cavs also had the No. 1 overall pick. They went with Anthony Bennett of UNLV, whose rookie season averages of 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds portend a Bowie-like bust in the NBA. Cleveland can’t afford two straight busts at No. 1.
Because, sure, the Cavs might be passing on the next Hakeem the Dream. Or they might be passing on the next Sam Bowie. Right now there’s no way to know for sure.
The bigger point is, with this being one of the deepest NBA drafts in a decade, you don’t want to be the guy who took the next Sam Bowie but passed on some other huge talent.
Because as we all know, the man taken right after Sam Bowie was Michael Jordan.