Embiid’s heart is telling him to stay at KU, but his back is screaming ‘go’

It's a compliment to the KU program that it's taking this long for Joel Embiid to decide whether to make the NBA leap.

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — His heart is telling him to stay. The trouble is, Joel Embiid’s lower back keeps telling him something else entirely.

It’s a ticking time bomb, liable to go off again at any time — and probably the wrong one. A basketball career that ought to be decades might be only years or, God forbid, months. You never know.

Deep down, Joel Hans Embiid will always be a Kansas Jayhawk. But he’s assured of being a top three pick in the NBA Draft only right here, right now. As calculated risks go, just one option surely comes with a giant Brink’s truck in tow.

Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday that Embiid, KU’s prodigiously gifted freshman center, would indeed forgo his collegiate eligibility soon to enter the pro ranks. This report was then denied by Embiid and coach Bill Self, although Self did note to the Topeka Capital-Journal, in a carefully worded caveat, that the story wasn’t true as of this moment.

The 7-footer from Cameroon has only until April 15 to let the NCAA know of his agenda; that the thought process (at least publicly) has taken this long — Embiid hasn’t played since March 1 because of a stress fracture in his lower back — is a compliment to Self and to the KU experience as a whole.


Because as a business decision, and only as a business decision, it’s a no-brainer. A Rock Chalk walk.

In the NBA mock draft for 2014 at DraftExpress.com, just two of the top five projected picks are 6-foot-9 or taller. Stretch it out, and it becomes five of the first 10 and eight of the first 17. The 2015 mock? Different story. Four of the first five picks are 6-9 or bigger, six of the first 10 and nine of the first 17.

Over at NBADraft.net, same story. 2014 mock: Four of the first eight picks, and only five of the first 17 are true big men. 2015 mock: five of the first eight selections, and nine of the first 17.

The pro jump is a timing game, as much as anything, and this spring looks to be a bit less crowded for post studs than the next one.

Granted, a star is a star in any draft class, whether it’s after one year of college, two, three or four. It’s positively scary to think how good Embiid — who averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 boards and 2.6 blocks this past season — could be at KU with another year under Self’s tutelage, let alone two more. The Wilt Chamberlain comparisons thrown at Andrew Wiggins might be better aimed toward No. 21, health permitting.

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Health permitting. And that, right there, is the rub.

Embiid, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t sound like the type who has been walking around for the past six months with one eye on the NBA, the way you sort of feel Wiggins has. The Jayhawk center has watched enough NBA big men, heard enough about the NBA life, to know the kind of leap it is, especially for a player who really took up basketball seriously just four years ago, a stranger playing a strange game in a strange land.

When JoJo says he doesn’t know if he’s ready, he means it. At 20, Embiid is a young man. The NBA is a playground for grown men. Wise men. Unsympathetic men.

But money talks, and the money says Embiid needs to strike while his stock is in the stratosphere, before the lower back raises more questions than his game has answers. As of Thursday morning, the 7-footer was slotted as the No. 2 pick (to Philadelphia) by both DraftExpress.com and NBADraft.net.

"People are really excited about him; they really like his talent," offers Jonathan Givony, the brains behind DraftExpress.com. "Even though he is obviously raw, he’s also been really, really productive. You see the shot, the confidence, the way he’s rebounding, the way he’s blocking shots."

Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons endured the same type of stress fracture a year ago but returned to form within seven weeks. A decade earlier, UConn star Emeka Okafor bounced back from lower-back issues late in his final season with the Huskies and averaged a double-double in the NBA over each of the next five years.

It might be decades. It might be months. Historically, back pain and NBA stars are two great tastes that have never gone particularly well together: Ralph Sampson never played in more than 61 tilts in a season after the age of 27 and was out of the league at 31. Brad Daugherty never played in more than 73 contests after the age of 26 and was out of the league at 29.

Ex-UCLA great Bill Walton was undercut in a game at Washington State in 1974, fell awkwardly — shades of what Embiid went through at Oklahoma State earlier this month — and has lived with pain for most of the rest of his life.

"Think of being submerged in a tub of boiling acid with an electrified current running through it. That would be nothing," Walton told U-T San Diego in 2010. "People who haven’t had that nerve pain can’t know. It’s debilitating, excruciating, unrelenting."

It’s unforgiving, which also means — in downtown Lawrence terms — there are only so many quarters available on hand that can be fed into the meter. And, unfortunately for Embiid, that meter is already running.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.