The news that Joel Embiid has succumbed to another injury is devastating to those who care about him and believe in his talent- his agents, his family and friends. But as is the case with almost all professional sports- loss is gain, no one feels sorry for anyone else’s personal tragedy. So here we are with a draft shakeup whereas Jabari Parker may be the new #1 pick and Dante Exum could possibly have his fate reversed and find himself drafted at #3. We know Joel Embiid is having surgery on Friday and will miss the NBA Draft. He will not be the #1 pick. He will fall down the draft board. When and if he plays next year will depend on how he heals and how he responds to his rehabilitation. In other words his career is a question mark.
The Greg Oden fog that hangs over injured big men has impacted the 2014 draft one week before it is all to begin. (Four months after being drafted in 2007 Oden had knee surgery; from there his career went downhill.) Big men are question marks just as much as they are coveted. They develop later than other players. Their bodies just don’t make mathematical sense. Their careers end quicker. And their injuries are devastating. Many are comparing Joel Embiid to another injured big man, Andrew Bynum.
The Lakers knew when they drafted Bynum in 2005 he had a history of knee problems beginning at the age of twelve. Bynum only played 32 games in high school. He was overweight until three months before the draft. But the Lakers drafted a healthy player, as healthy as Bynum could be. He began working with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. It was understood that Bynum could only be a 30 minute player and the Lakers and Phil Jackson stuck to that regimen. There was no surgery, no rehabilitation to interrupt his development. Three months into his rookie career Bynum found himself in a NBA game going up against Shaquille O’Neal and dunking the ball.
Can we say the same of Embiid, that he will be on the court in January 2015?
Joel Embiid attended Lakers games this year only because his college career ended prematurely. He had a stress fracture in his back. Now he has a stress fracture in his foot. Is it possible that his skeletal system, as is sometimes the case with big men, has difficulty maintaining the intensity and rigor of sustained activity. Embiid has yet to go through the rigors and exhaustion of a NBA season and he has already been sidelined twice.
Bynum’s injuries came through contact in a grueling season. Bynum has an odd shape, sort of like a giraffe who weighs as much as an elephant who runs like a lion. In his 3rd year in the NBA Bynum landed on Lamar Odom’s foot and dislocated his kneecap. The next year Kobe collided into him and he tore his MCL. In the 2010 playoffs Bynum injured his knee against the Thunder. When he was traded to the Sixers he had both knees drained and has played very little since then. The point is all of his injuries occurred in NBA games. Joel Embiid has not played an NBA game.
Can any team afford to gamble away a first round pick on the chance that Embiid’s bones are strong enough for what the NBA has evolved into. Someone is always crashing into someone else, someone is always hitting the ground hard. After 18 seasons Kobe cracked his knee against the floor and it broke. Could that happen to Embiid in season #1? The salary cap being what it is can the Lakers (or anyone else) afford the risk of another player who can’t stay healthy? Hasn’t the Steve Nash experience taught the Lakers the cruelty of a player trying to come back from an injury?
Greg Oden was the #1 pick in 2007. The team that drafted him eventually gave up. The team that drafted him, the Portland Trailblazers, traded for another compromised player before they drafted Oden. In 2006 the Blazers acquired Brandon Roy on draft night. Roy had knee trouble in high school and was a 4 year college player without limitations. Roy had a good six year run with the Blazers, he was an All Star, and then he was forced into a medical retirement. As for Oden, he was a member of the Miami Heat this year but he didn’t play in the Finals because he had another injury. It was to the same part of the body that caused Joel Embiid to stop playing college ball. It was to Greg Oden’s back.
The Lakers milked 7 good years out of Andrew Bynum, perhaps the best of his career. Andrew Bynum received fame and 2 championships for his efforts. When Kendrick Perkins went down in game 6 in the 2010 NBA Finals and couldn’t return Bynum took advantage of his absence. The Bynum experiment kept the Lakers in contention in their NBA Finals years 2008-10. He was an All-Star who eventually ran out of time.
Last week Greg Oden watched what could have been his life. In Game 5, in the NBA Finals, there were men his size at the rim. There were men his size making plays. There were men his size celebrating a title- and you know what- that could have been him. It could have been Greg Oden once upon a time. But. It wasn’t. Greg Oden sat at a distance as his-supposed-to-be-spectacular career lost one more day, one more month, one more season.
Joel Embiid they say can be the next Hakeem Olajuwan. Hakeem won back to back titles. He was simply the most athletic big man the NBA has ever seen, a center who played like a guard. Joel Embiid, they say, can be him. Can be Hakeem. Or he can be the opposite. He can be the next Greg Oden. A player with potential but a player with a disappearing career.