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Nearly one month after suffering a setback in the healing of his surgically repaired right foot, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid will now undergo a second procedure on that foot, one that is expected to cost him the entire 2015-16 NBA season.
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The Sixers announced Embiid will need a bone-graft procedure of his fractured foot, confirming a report from Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier on Saturday.
The 21-year-old 7-footer, who starred for Bill Self at Kansas in his lone collegiate season before suffering a stress fracture in his lower back that kept him out of the entire Big 12 tournament and both of the Jayhawks' NCAA tournament games, was considered one of the top prospects in the 2014 NBA draft, and a potential target of the Cleveland Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall pick. One week before the draft, though, the Cameroonian center suffered a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his right foot — a tiny bone in the middle of the foot that's "essential in proper weight transfer and force absorption during ground impact," according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.
That's the same bone broken by Houston Rockets giant Yao Ming, who suffered multiple fractures that would eventually prompt his retirement. It's also, however, the one broken by former Cleveland Cavaliers great Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who missed the lion's share of three seasons and underwent three separate surgeries on the bone before eventually being able to stay on the court, playing another decade and making a pair of All-Star appearances.
Despite Embiid having surgery just before the 2014 draft and the daunting prospect of him becoming yet another gifted giant whose career trajectory would be drastically altered by failing feet, the 76ers tabbed him with the No. 3 overall pick. Hinkie operated under the same thought process as he had the year before, when he swung a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans to snare injured Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel, who was considered by many to be a prospective No. 1 overall pick before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Noel missed his whole rookie season rehabilitating from the injury, but that was fine by Hinkie; getting nothing from his top draft choice would only aid his sink-to-the-bottom rebuilding plan, and when Noel got healthy, he'd have landed a No. 1-caliber talent at a lower price while gaining another asset (a future first-round draft pick) in the process.
The Sixers handled Embiid exactly as they did Noel, holding him out for the entirety of what was to be his rookie season — even though he at times seemed athletically capable of moving on that right foot — with plans to reintroduce him to live game action during the Summer League. But last month's setback — which came amid reports that Embiid was looking "dominant" and "explosive" in workouts — kiboshed that plan.
"Our priority remains providing Joel with every opportunity to ensure he has a long and successful NBA career, and as such, these findings cause us to pause and reassess his activities," the 76ers wrote in a statement last month announcing Embiid's setback.
As recently as late June, following the 2015 NBA draft, Hinkie reported that Embiid "was pain free and the foot hadn’t bothered the big man in 'many, many weeks,'" according to John Gonzalez of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia:
"That’s part of what makes this — maybe confusing is the right word — confusing for [Embiid], but confusing because he feels great," Hinkie said. "He says, 'I can’t believe how good I feel. I’ve felt great for a while. It’s hard to believe something could be wrong.'"
This latest report suggests that something could be very wrong, and that an awful lot more than summer league suit-ups will be scuttled for Embiid, who hasn't suited up for a competitive game in a year and a half and now will be faced with spending the first two seasons of his career on the shelf.
Despite spending top-six selections on Noel and Embiid in the past two drafts, the 76ers selected Duke center Jahlil Okafor with the No. 3 pick in June's 2015 NBA draft. It was rumored at the time that while Hinkie's selection was likely informed by his desire to add the highest-ceiling talent possible at Philly's draft position — and perhaps compromised somewhat by the Los Angeles Lakers somewhat surprisingly electing to pass up Okafor to take Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell second overall — the choice of Okafor could also have been made due to pessimism that Embiid will be able to shake the foot injuries and develop into the kind of franchise-tilting prospect he'd appeared to be at Kansas.
To what degree such a possibility informed Hinkie's thinking remains unclear. So too, sadly, does the point at which we might actually see Joel Embiid on an NBA court.
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