A little more than a week before Thursday's 2014 NBA draft, freshman Kansas center Joel Embiid looked very likely to become the first overall pick and a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thankfully for him, he didn't drop far after undergoing surgery that looked to put his draft position in doubt.
With the third pick of the draft, the Philadelphia 76ers selected Embiid to join their young core. Embiid, a native of Cameroon, was not at Barclays Center for the event but was shown on the ESPN broadcast at home, wearing a tie as if he were present. Cameras initially showed Embiid looking stunned by the news (to put it kindly) ...
#3 Joel Embiid reaction after being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers - 2014 NBA Draft pic.twitter.com/fY9Kms4Ay1— 3030 (@jose3030) June 26, 2014
... although he was eventually seen celebrating and smiling. Just to make sure, Embiid sent out a photo to let everyone know how excited he is to play in Philly:
Hello Philly!!!! This is my real "Just got drafted" face. Couldnt be happier to be a 76er!!! pic.twitter.com/asA5nGBRUD— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) June 27, 2014
Embiid's draft stock dipped considerably last Thursday when news broke that he required surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot and will need four to six months to recover. Some analysts already considered Embiid an injury risk after he missed the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments with an injured back. The foot injury sealed his fate and turned his draft-night experience into a question of how far, not if, he would fall. The co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, picking second on Thursday, even made it public that his team would not pick Embiid.
The Sixers have already shown a willingness to let high-potential players heal, having engineered a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans at the 2013 draft to obtain Kentucky big man and sixth overall pick Nerlens Noel while he was working his way back from a torn ACL. Noel was shut down for the year and didn't play even when cleared medically, so the Sixers could opt to keep their top pick on the sidelines yet again this season. Philadelphia remains in serious rebuilding mode, but it has a nice core that includes reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and a well-regarded head coach in former San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown. Despite winning only 19 games, the franchise's future looks bright.
A lingering injury to either the foot or the back is often seen as a major hindrance to a big man's career — a combination of both would seem to be a death knell. On the other hand, there is a growing belief that past players were hurt more by a failure to treat their injuries properly than the fact that they suffered them in the first place. It's very possible that, if the Sixers allow Embiid time to rest and get back into shape — and all available evidence says they will — he'll be the top prospect that most analysts believed him to be as recently as last week. While opinion differed some as to who was the best player in this draft, Embiid had emerged as the most popular choice to become the first overall pick. It's rare that a team gets a player with his current ability and apparent ceiling at this point in the draft.
It remains to be seen when Embiid will begin his NBA career and how much he will be able to contribute. For the time being, he has avoided a precipitous drop on draft night and looks to have landed with a team that will not want him to step on the court before he's ready. The Sixers and their fans can be forgiven for exhibiting some guarded optimism.
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