If you want to see NBA executives scrambling for their Sharpies and hastily revising their internal mock drafts? More sleep-deprived than usual? With the annual selection party less than a week away?
Mention Joel Embiid. The Kansas center, who was projected as the No.1 overall pick before undergoing surgery Friday to repair a fractured right foot, is turning the lottery process into a stretch-run medical free-for-all.
Every team rewarded for a lousy season with a prized lottery ticket – and that includes the Kings – should be absolutely terrified. First the stress fracture in his back, now the broken navicular bone in his foot. In fact, if Embiid is still available when Pete D’Alessandro prepares to reveal his pick at No. 8, the second-year general manager should put his head down on his desk, meditate for the allotted five minutes and resist temptation. Just say no and move on. The Kings need more players, not more medical bills.
NBA history has been brutal to big men who suffer serious knee, ankle or foot injuries, and the list of limping 7-footers seems to be increasing, not shrinking.
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Repeated fractures of the navicular bone limited Bill Walton’s effectiveness and repeatedly interrupted what should have been a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime career. Yao Ming struggled to carry China’s flag in the Beijing Olympics and retired soon afterward for similar reasons. Zydrunas Ilgauskas became the Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-time leader in gamesplayed, but early in his career, he broke the navicular bones in both feet and played a total of five games over two seasons; he eventually retired because of recurring discomfort.
The more recent history is perhaps most troubling: Brooklyn center Brook Lopez has twice broken his right foot and missed extended time. Phoenix rookie Alex Len, the first center drafted a year ago (No. 5), averaged 8.6 minutes in 42 games after returning from ankle injuries. Philadelphia center Nerlens Noel, the second center selected last year at No. 6, sat out the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL.
No, as Thursday’s draft approaches, the intriguing question isn’t whether Embiid slips, but how far and how fast? While team officials are hurriedly gathering information and pressing his agent, Arn Tellem, to provide the pertinent medical records, some league officials are predicting the Jayhawk freshman – who is widely regarded as the prize of the draft if healthy – will drop all the way to No.10. Others doubt he will get past Orlando at No. 4 or Utah at No. 5.
The Kings are sitting at lottery mid-pack and sweating. And saying little. But while the annual talent grabfest is still new to some members of the new regime – executives who already have demonstrated a willingness to take significant risks, by the way – damaged goods crippled their franchise for the better part of the past decade. Chris Webber, the best player in the Sacramento era and a former MVP candidate, never fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered during the 2003 playoffs or the delicate, somewhat controversial microfracture procedure performed weeks later by Dr. James Andrews.
The surgery to repair fractured navicular bones is less controversial, but similarly problematic.
“What is the critical variable here?” said Dr. Philip Kwong, a foot and ankle specialist at the renowned Kerlan-Jobe clinic in Los Angeles. “Is it the size of the player? The fact they are 7-footers? Or is it something about how they are made. Shaq is a very big man, but his feet are a size 22. Look at cars, the difference between a compact and a truck. If you don’t have proper alignment, neither one is going to work properly. The pressure and pounding on 7-footers is one variable. But the (anatomical) makeup of the foot is more important.”
Kwong twice repaired Derek Fisher’s fractured navicular bone, he noted, the second time mere months before the former Lakers guard tormented the Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals.
“And Derek went on to enjoy a wonderful career,” the doctor added.
As it relates to the 7-foot Embiid, whose foot was surgically repaired in Southern California by Dr. Richard Ferkel, Kwong said medical staffs inquiring about the Cameroon native’s condition will want to review CT scans and MRI tests to determine whether the fracture was a recent or longer-term injury. The normal recovery period following surgery is four to six months, assuming there are no additional complications.
The Cavaliers apparently aren’t interested in taking chances or reliving the Ilgauskas experience. League executives were predicting an inordinate number of trades even before Embiid’s status changed. Most mock drafts are elevating Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins to the No. 1 overall spot, with Duke forward Jabari Parker a close second.
With the Big Three abruptly morphing into the Big Two, the situation for the Kings and the other lottery teams becomes more complicated. Who takes a chance on the talented but seldom seen Dante Exum? Can Marcus Smart direct an offense? Is Julius Randle’s foot an issue? Are Noah Vonleh and Aaron Gordon NBA ready? Are the slick-shooting Doug McDermott and Nik Stauskas athletic enough to get off their shots? And does point guard Elfrid Payton move up and surprise?
The Kings are convinced they will acquire a quality player Thursday. But said player has to be a healthy player, which means if Embiid is still sitting when the Kings are on the clock, they have to resist the urge to bite on a player whose improvement has been mindbogglingly swift and undeniably tantalizing, swallow hard, and look the other way.