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In late June, NBA prospect Joel Embiid underwent surgery to repair the broken navicular bone in his right foot. The initial prognosis, in the days before the 2014 NBA Draft, stated that he’d be out four-to-six months. Depending on the team that selected him, Embiid could theoretically have returned in time for the opening week of the 2014-15 season.
Then the Philadelphia 76ers selected him.
Days after the draft, the Sixers expanded the expected recovery time frame for their newest, raw and young big man. In August, the team declared that he could be out for the 2014-15 season. It’s nearly nine months since the draft, and Embiid is on the same plan as fellow Sixer “rookie” Nerlens Noel was last year – shooting around and working out with his team’s coaching staff during rare practices and before games. All with head coach Brett Brown somehow keeping a positive outlook after yet another rough season.
"He is feeling better without a doubt," Brown said. "He is ticking boxes with regards to increased time on the court and reduced weight."
"You see him drenched in sweat and shirtless. They are all fantastic signs that his needle is clearly pointing in the right direction," Brown said. "We are trying to set the stage for a great summer. He sees his reward being the summer league and trying to get ready for playing basketball again. He is headed in the right direction."
So, through silence and “his reward being the summer league”-signs, we more or less have a confirmation on what was expected last summer. Embiid won’t play token minutes this season as he recovers from his right foot fracture, effectively making 2015-16 his rookie season – much in the same way Nerlens Noel is working through his rookie year despite being on the second year of his first pro contract.
Whether or not any of this works, as is always the case with the Philadelphia 76ers, will take a long time to determine.
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Their frenzied ports of call have made it so the prize of the 2013 draft class – 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams – will be turned into what they hope is the prize of the much improved either 2015 or 2016 draft class. The team didn’t mind paying Noel as he slowly returned from an ACL tear last season, taking 18 months between his final game at Kentucky and first as a pro with Philly. Another prospect, Croatian swingman Dario Saric, might be years away from coming stateside.
Philadelphia will have loads of cap space in the coming offseasons and potentially six lottery-bred prospects (three of which are currently nameless in the months and years before the 2015 and 2016 drafts) lining up for the team at the outset of 2016-17, but the franchise will have also taken three full seasons working at the absolute bottom to get there. And with no real assurance that general manager Sam Hinkie won’t flip someone like Noel for another chance at an even bigger young star sometime down the line.
How Embiid even plays with Noel is of some concern, as on the surface both present an athletic but raw overall game that seems to think defense-first and missed jump hook in the lane second. With Noel showcasing fantastic timing defending the perimeter in his first active season, coach Brown sees no such problem with the 2015-16 acclimation:
"I think Nerlens defensively is going to be used all over the place," Brown said. "Ultimately, we are going to have Joel Embiid at the rim. You are going to have Nerlens maybe switching out on a point guard, double-teaming or hedging when we show hard on pick-and-rolls.
"Because of Nerlens' athleticism and versatility he becomes so pliable to use in many areas. I see his game in such a greater light with who is he going to be when Joel comes, and I think his athleticism and versatility allow us to dream of that."
Wouldn’t a few late season reps with Noel help Embiid, in this regard?
Last season, around this time, we posited the idea that a week or two spent banging around NBA bodies would do wonders for Noel’s game as he entered into yet another summer of gym work prior to the 2014-15 season, especially as it wasn’t expected that Nerlens would risk losing out on the 2015 Rookie of the Year award. Noel was long recovered from his ACL tear in the early spring of 2014, and because ACL tears aren’t exactly chronic injuries that flare up from overuse, the Sixers weren’t putting his career on the line by playing him in meaningless games.
With Embiid, however, the recovery worries are different.
Joel Embiid, who turned 21 earlier in March, only started playing basketball at age 15. Because of his ascension, the body that rests atop his 7-foot frame has changed considerably since 2011, and even changed considerably (in ways both good and bad) within his recovery from the foot fracture.
We have absolutely no way of knowing how the would-be rookie’s foot will handle its NBA debut, whenever that happens. Navicular fractures have ended careers, or severely limited them; and while it’s more than possible to come back fully from these sorts of bone breaks, one shouldn’t mess around with fractures like these just for the sake of getting some reps in against the Hornets in the first week of April. Especially as Brett Brown, astoundingly, has these Sixers nearly working with a top-ten defense.
The setup is the same, but the player is different. Joel Embiid should probably go easy until the NBA’s Summer League hits.
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