A balky lower back derailed Joel Embiid’s freshman season at Kansas. Now a stress fracture in his right foot is threatening to torpedo his status as the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
Embiid, a 7-foot center from Cameroon, suffered a stress fracture to the navicular bone in his right foot, his agent, Arn Tellem, said in a release Thursday. He is scheduled to have surgery today and miss next Thursday’s NBA Draft ceremonies at the Barclays Center in New York.
“Joel will be unable to participate in any additional workouts, and will not attend the draft in New York,” the release said. “We will have no further comment until after the surgery.”
So now the former Kansas star waits, hoping that his recent injury history won’t scare away the Cleveland Cavaliers, who hold the No. 1 selection, or any other NBA organization.
Embiid, who began playing organized basketball just three years ago, was thought to be the front-runner to go No. 1 in the draft to the Cavaliers, ahead of former teammate Andrew Wiggins and former Duke star Jabari Parker. Embiid worked out for the Cavaliers this month and had been scheduled to work out for the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the second overall pick, later this week, according to reports. The Philadelphia 76ers hold the third pick in the draft and reportedly covet Wiggins.
But Embiid’s foot injury muddies the draft waters and could position Wiggins or possibly Parker as the No. 1 pick in the draft. On Thursday, both ESPN Draft analyst Chad Ford and DraftExpress.com moved Wiggins to the top of their projected draft lists.
Even before reports surfaced Thursday of the foot injury, Embiid’s health was a major storyline. He suffered a stress fracture in his lower back in the final weeks of his freshman season, causing him to miss both the Big 12 tournament and NCAA Tournament. He also had missed a game earlier in the season while recovering from a sore back.
“It’s going to be the doctors that decide which way this goes,” said Jonathan Givony, who analyzes draft prospects for DraftExpress.com. “There are 30 doctors for (30) NBA teams, and they may all disagree on this. It’s really hard to say which way it’s going to go.”
If not for the injury questions, Embiid was poised to supplant Wiggins as the presumptive No. 1 pick. His blend of size and coordination was tantalizing. So was the rapid nature of his basketball development.
If Embiid could be this good after playing organized basketball for three seasons, perhaps he could transform into a franchise center at the next level.
“He’s got a terrific frame,” Kansas coach Bill Self said this week. “He’s a very, very, very good athlete and he’s a sponge. And the fact that he’s been playing three years and is this advanced is quite remarkable when you really look at the big scheme of things, especially for a big man.”
Embiid, who was discovered as a teenager at a camp in his native Cameroon, began his college career by averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds, exploding onto the national scene after being a relative unknown while playing two years of high school basketball in Florida. During predraft workouts, he set out to prove that his back was healthy and just a temporary setback.
But now the foot injury tacks a question mark on Embiid’s future. Is he simply the victim of some unfortunate timing or perhaps another in a long line of injury-prone big men? Former NBA centers Yao Ming and Bill Walton each suffered similar injuries to the navicular bone and faced years of nagging foot issues, while former Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a navicular fracture early in his career and played nine healthy seasons.
“The teams are going to look at it and they’re going to have their opinion on how this might affect an NBA career,” Givony said. “Is this going to be a recurring issue? Is this going to be another Yao Ming or Bill Walton? Or it could have a happy ending.”