The winter of our discontent is all but over, and is beginning to give way to the spring of our desire. March Madness is upon us. It’s not exactly the fireworks factory, but it’s at least a fireworks store on the way to Secaucus. For the next couple weeks, we’re all able to forget that the currently constructed Philadelphia 76ers exist and instead watch daily basketball and proclaim at least 20 collegiate athletes as future Sixers. (And thanks to Cleveland we can pick like half of them)
The big question heading into this tournament is whether or not Joel Embiid will be one of those athletes we’re watching. Embiid, you may remember, is the teammate of snappy dresser, nimble dancer and Liberty Ballers patron saint Andrew Wiggins on the Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team. He also happens to be one of the best collegiate big men prospects of the last decade. Since the season began and people began to realize that Embiid knew how to put not just one, but both of his socks on, the debate has raged as to who the top prospect in the draft, with most choosing one of the Kansas twosome, and a select few picking Jabari Parker, who notably does not play for Kansas or for defense.
However, for the last month, Embiid has been plagued by injury. He injured his back in a game against West Virginia on February 8th, played two nights later against Kansas State, and then sat out for a week. He returned, dominated as per his usual, and then re-injured his back against Oklahoma State on March 1st. After seeking a series of opinions, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture, and it was announced he’ll miss the Big 12 tournament and is "a long shot" to play in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. (Quick side note: Deadspin had a really good piece on what the injury means to Embiid just from a medical perspective that I’d recommend to everyone.)
Now, while the NCAA Tournament is obviously a big deal, the focus of Embiid’s injury almost immediately shifted to what it means for his professional prospects, and what the best outlook would be for him long term. Embiid certainly isn’t the first big man to have back issues; the list is long and pretty much terrifying. Obviously, we all hope Embiid is OK. He’s an incredible player to watch when he’s healthy, and his massive strides of improvement have been my favorite thing to watch in college basketball this year that isn’t this.
But let’s be honest. Our concern is primarily draft and 76ers based. I’d love to see him play in the NCAA tournament, but I’m not a Kansas fan, and I’d much rather see him play in the NBA for the next 10 years, even if it’s not for my team. Let’s talk about what this means to the NBA and to the Sixers, specifically.
1. If the draft was held tomorrow, Andrew Wiggins would most likely be the top pick.
For many NBA general managers, this is the draft that can make or break their career in basketball. The teams in this lottery have, for the most part, punted their seasons away, some more egregiously than others. Nothing terrifies NBA general managers more than injuries. If you need a reminder, here, go watch the 2013 draft, where NBA general managers pick Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, and Alex Len over this guy. (And if you want a bonus laugh, skip to the part where Bill Simmons starts talking about MCW’s bust potential like 30 seconds after he’s drafted because "point guard is an alpha dog position.") Despite the fact that a franchise big man is basically the golden ticket to the Wonka factory, absolutely nobody wants to be the guy that picks a lemon in this draft. So if Embiid’s health concerns continue to be a story leading into the draft, I think the tide will swing back to where it was at the start of the season, with Wiggins being the consensus top choice, especially if Wiggins keeps having games like he did Thursday against Oklahoma State.
2. Embiid may not declare for the draft.
The interesting conundrum to me is the idea that Embiid may stay in school rather than enter the draft with health questions surrounding him, especially if he is unable to return to the court during the tournament. Now, if I were him (which, as a 6 foot guy with a decent mid-range jumper and no vertical game, I am most certainly not), I’d be declaring for the draft tomorrow. Despite no GM wanting to get stuck with a lemon, realistically, Embiid could show up to the draft with Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis carrying him around re-enacting Weekend at Bernie’s and he’d still be a top 10 pick at the absolute worst, and likely still picked in the top 5. Tank Commander Hinkie would run to the podium at Barclays Center to pick him with the PeliPick, and that’s assuming he’s in the war room in Philly. (Perhaps he’d take a Vespa or something, the man does value efficiency.) While the potential would obviously be for him to be the unquestioned top pick next year, the potential is also there for him to get further injured and increase the doubt as to whether he’ll have a healthy NBA career. Why risk it? Get your money, big guy.
3. The Sixers probably need to win the lottery if they want Wiggins.
For the last couple months, I’ve operated under two possibly incorrect assumptions.
a) Andrew Wiggins is the top player on the Sixers board.
b) They could probably get him with the 2nd pick.
The first part of that remains my assumption. When the Sixers made the decision to punt the season away, Wiggins was the consensus, hardly ever questioned top prospect in the draft. After all, they have YouTube at the Navy Yard. Now, they didn’t put all of their eggs in the Wiggins basket, and the party line has been that they feel there are several game-changing talents in this draft, but I refuse to believe they didn’t at least put some hope that this season would be their best shot at getting Wiggins. That’s wild speculation mixed with OH GOD PLEASE LET IT BE TRUE, but it’s my theory and it’s gotten me through the last couple weeks of out-of-shape Arnett Moultrie and BJ Mullens jumpers. (Stop being such a horrendous basketball player and I’ll call you Byron, until then, deal with it, Beej.)
The second assumption, however, is now in serious jeopardy. My thought was that among high lottery teams, most of them would be likely to draft a franchise big man over a franchise wing player. Milwaukee, Orlando and Los Angeles all have a franchise history of drafting big men, and more importantly, a void at the center position. (Sorry, Vuc. I’m still not totally on board.) Boston is a wild card, but Danny Ainge’s history suggests to me he would go for a big man as well. Sacramento and Detroit would probably choose Wiggins, and Utah would probably pick Wiggins or Parker.
If Embiid’s injury questions linger though, all of those high lottery teams still have plenty of room to draft a franchise wing player instead of rolling the dice on Embiid.
Now, it’s very possible that Embiid returns to dominate the NCAA tournament, cements his status as the top pick, and posts up folding chairs in Chicago without showing any injury issues whatsoever. Everything I just said could be irrelevant in like two weeks. As a fan of his, basketball, fun and the Sixers, I really hope that’s what happens. But we’ve all seen what happens when the narrative train gets rolling down the hill, and my fear is that this is going to be the narrative on Embiid as the draft approaches.
Hopefully I'm wrong though. Go Embiid. The quest for the northern light rolls along.