PHILADELPHIA --- With two screws in his surgically repaired foot and a back that had recently been stress-fractured, Joel Embiid didn't need a mock draft to understand what was about to happen. He was not going to be the first player selected in the NBA draft, or the second, maybe not the third, or the fourth, or the one the Spurs would take after winning the championship.
“I thought,” Embiid said Monday, on a conference call with basketball writers, “I was going to drop to the second round.”
That's the way it used to be, back when the idea of pro-basketball roster construction was to accumulate players who could follow the classic Hakeem Olajuwon plan. That was, “On offense, I like to dunk, and on defense, I like to block shots.” Those traits have been known to work, too, from time to time, dunking at one end, preventing dunks at the other. But that's not how it necessarily works anymore.
So despite a back injury that kept him from joining Kansas for the NCAA Tournament, and despite having his foot snap during a pre-draft workout, the 7-foot, 250-pound Embiid was selected No. 3 overall by the Sixers. And he is going to play for them, too. Some day.
“When I feel,” he said, “110 percent.”
Hey, don't rush anything.
Embiid is from Cameroon and only began playing basketball in 2011, so give him a no-harm-no-foul and assume he was fumbling around with the sports cliches. Maybe he meant he would give 110 percent when he returned, and maybe he would concede to do that if he were only at 99 percent readiness. Yet there has been enough recent evidence that the Sixers will stash a talented player in the green room for an entire season, never willing to demand one dunk or one blocked shot for a year's salary. Remember Andrew Bynum? Remember Nerlens Noel? Nerlens Noel. Anybody?
Anyway, Embiid remembers Olajuwon, the player he has been most likened to, the one who won two NBA championships and wall space in Springfield, Mass. Olajuwon was the first player taken in the 1984 draft and was the Rookie of the Year.
Embiid is not going to be the Rookie of the Year, or a Rookie of a Month, or a Rookie of a Week, not the way it seems. The Sixers drafted him with the intent to allow him to heal while they lose more games. So, he said he will, and will agree to play only after consultation with doctors and Sixers administrators. By then, the Sixers may actually break the tie for the NBA's longest losing streak, the one they share with Cleveland. Best of luck.
“I just have to stay positive and put all the negative comments out of my head,” Embiid said. “I have to stay positive.”
Embiid was injured in a workout in L.A., where he was playing against “some people.” An MRI revealed a stress fracture, which was repaired, the recovery typically taking up to half a year, even on timetables not controlled by Sam Hinkie. Embiid insists the fracture was not related to the back, that he wasn't risking one injury by trying to minimize the effects of another. He's only 20. He can and should recover.
“My shot getting a lot better,” he said. “I am working on my handle and passing skills. I feel I can become a forward, but I want to be a traditional center and stay on block, not be like other centers shoot threes.”
If he could shoot ones, he would help a team that lost 63 times last season. But he won't, not this season, not unless he is a buck-ten-percent healthy, which is unlikely. But he will come to Philadelphia next week and start devouring tapes and cheesesteaks. Care to guess which one the Sixers will encourage as a photo op?
“When my name was called, I was excited and happy,” he said. “I realized my dream and still can't believe it's true. I am excited and happy and can't wait to get to work.”
As for the Sixers, they can and will wait, and wait, and wait.r