In the weeks before the NBA Draft, before Joel Embiid’s fractured right foot shrouded the first round in intrigue and chaos, Kansas coach Bill Self was openly campaigning for history.
You would expect nothing less, of course. Self hoped Embiid, his former 7-foot center, and Andrew Wiggins, his former swingman phenom, would go 1-2 in the draft — in some order.
And why not?
Any college coach is going to go to bat for his own guys, and Self’s program was in position for some draft history. With a little luck, Kansas could become just the second college team in history to have players go first and second in the same draft — after Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist accomplished the feat in 2012.
“We were spoiled here,” Self told The Star last week. “But we also saw an 18-year-old, and we saw a kid who had played (basketball for just) two years, and look how much good they did?
“Now let’s think about Wiggins being 21 instead of 18. Let’s think about Joel being six years into playing ball instead of two or three. I haven’t been around anybody with ceilings like this.”
This was before Embiid’s agent, Arn Tellem, announced that Embiid had a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his right foot — an ominous foot injury for a big man. It was before Embiid had surgery on the foot Friday, Yahoo! Sports reporting that he had two screws inserted into the foot. It was before, according to reports, Embiid’s camp began withholding his medical reports from certain teams — perhaps in an effort to push him to a preferred franchise.
That was all before the NBA Draft descended into a fuzzy puzzle, the pieces waiting to fall into place. But Kansas and Self can still make history on Thursday, when the draft begins at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The Jayhawks have never produced two top-five selections in the same year. And Kansas hasn’t had two players in the top 10 since 1998, when Raef LaFrentz was drafted No. 3 by Denver and Paul Pierce fell to Boston at No. 10.
But as the clock ticks down to Thursday, nobody is quite sure where Wiggins and Embiid will be picked. After Embiid’s latest injury, Wiggins could be positioned to go No. 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are also said to be interested in former Duke star Jabari Parker, who is, like Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 swingman with a high upside. Dante Exum, a 6-6 guard from Australia, is also pushing to join Wiggins and Parker in the top three.
Opinions vary, of course. And team-produced smokescreens and misinformation can be rampant in the hours before the draft. But during a teleconference on Tuesday, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said, even when considering health, he would still rank Embiid as his top prospect. Bilas also added that, if Embiid was out of the conversation, he would take Wiggins over Parker.
Not that Bilas doesn’t have questions about Wiggins.
“Does he have a killer instinct to be a superstar?” Bilas said, repeating an oft-mention critique of Wiggins.
Those questions have followed Wiggins since his first days at Kansas, where he broke the KU freshman scoring record but often left his coach wanting more.
Wiggins is sublimely gifted, blessed with a 40-inch vertical and a body suited for basketball. Expectations were wildly high. But too often, scouts say, he had a tendency to blend into his surroundings.
“I saw him play multiple times this year, and he just seemed to disappear at times,” said a scout for an Eastern Conference team. “I never thought he would be (Kevin) Durant or LeBron (James) — I didn’t understand those comparisons — but it will be interesting. He could be great, but you just don’t know.”
Self, who plans to attend Thursday’s draft, has heard the questions, too. But he argues that Wiggins’ freshman struggles were the result of a still developing skill set, not some intangible personality trait. Wiggins played on the wing in college, and Self thinks he could some day play some No. 2 guard in the NBA. But in his one year at Kansas, it was clear he was still working to find comfort on the perimeter.
“Andrew’s skill set hasn’t caught up to his athletic ability,” Self said. “And when it does, and I know he’s working hard on it, it’s going to set up his game so much better.”
Wiggins is still young, of course. He turned 19 during his freshman season at Kansas, and his upside could be too tantalizing to pass on. Even if the questions remain.
“He’s not quite polished,” said Jonathan Givony, who analyzes prospects for DraftExpress.com. “He’s not a great ball handler at this point, and he’s not the most consistent outside shooter.
“He kind of relies heavily on that midrange jumper, which is not the most efficient way of scoring. And he doesn’t do a great job of finishing through contact. But those are all things he can improve on. And once he does, he’s going to make huge strides.”
If the Cavaliers pass on Wiggins with the No. 1 pick, he probably will fall to the Milwaukee Bucks at No. 2. The bigger questions, entering Thursday, surround Embiid. Before his foot injury, he was thought to be the presumptive No. 1 pick to Cleveland. Now he could be available to a group of teams in the three-to-seven range, beginning with the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 3. The Orlando Magic is set to pick fourth, while Utah, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers will pick fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively.
Will Embiid tumble? Will a rebuilding franchise like Boston strike to pick up a now-diminished asset? Will Wiggins go No. 1 — as everyone once expected? Now, perhaps more than any time in recent memory, the draft is dripping with drama.
“We’re selfish,” Self said. “(But) we want Joel or Andrew to obviously go No. 1.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/rustindodd.