Joel Embiid isn’t the only risk in this year’s NBA Draft. “Projects” are what make each year interesting.
Last week, a stress fracture to the right navicular bone was heard ‘round the NBA blogosphere, particularly in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. The bone was to Joel Embiid’s, the man whom most claim will be the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s 2014 NBA Draft. His lottery hopes, to put it effectively, now dwindle by a pencil-thin telephone wire beset by tornadoes. The lottery debate (Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum, and Embiid) changed dramatically. Those denying the heartbreak of the situation needed more hugs during childhood. Those fashioning fresh qualms concerning the half-life of his career are no longer the minority.
Embiid is the league’s latest installment of “Talented prospect with game-changing upside and an injury-prone record injures himself prior to draft night.” The athletic 7-footer poised to be a defensive linchpin, with hands like frying pans, quick feet, and a clean face-up game—the kind that draws Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan parallels—might as well be the phoenix crumbling before us. He’s no longer the gem; he’s the “project.” He’s the Greg Oden of 2007, the Nerlens Noel of 2013, and he certainly won’t be the last lottery pick to put teams in this dilemma.
How can you draft someone you know won’t play for the first 4-6 months?
There are a couple different ways to qualify a project in the NBA Draft: Talent, location, and history seem to be the most recurring. Those considered endeavors on account of talent, include players like Byron Mullens, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Scottie Pippen—who grew seven inches in college and played against nobodies in the NAIA. His basketball acumen was developed, but nobody was around to test it, and in doing so, him. This isn’t to say the players listed weren’t talented, but they needed more time to develop into their bodies, ages, and styles when compared to others available.
Those considered undertakings on account of location, include players like Fernando Martin, Dragan Tarlać, and Andrea Bargnani—who teams would’ve reconsidered drafting if they had more opportunities to watch him in the first place. Location is also thorny because some international players can take a while to come over to their american franchises, if ever. It took Ricky Rubio two years to come to the United States after being drafted in 2009. Dante Exum is the face of this year’s class whom few have seen play.
Those considered projects on account of history include those with records: criminal, character, and injury.
Embiid falls in the final subcategory.
In a way, everyone is a project. In a way, everyone is a risk. In reality, a majority of players aren’t either. This leaves a reasonable pool of players properly positioned—whether it be by competition, resources, privilege, talent, whatever—ready to immediately impact the league.
Although playing the Game of Thrones leaves you just two options, middle ground can be had in the NBA Draft. Injuries are not final decrees and rough patches don’t wholly define legacies. Blake Griffin won Rookie of the Year after missing his entire first season because of a broken kneecap. Tracy McGrady will make the Hall of Fame despite averaging 10.5 points in his first three seasons; Benoit Benjamin averaged more in his first 36 months and he most likely won’t find his name in Springfield.
Like any draft, the NBA’s version is a challenge of risk management: an opportunity to better your franchise, to fill gaping holes in evidential areas and, at its core, it’s a gamble.
Embiid could just as easily come back to dominate the way scouts envisioned over much of the past season, but nobody would be surprised if he didn’t. We have no way of knowing if Embiid can come back like Michael Jordan and the numerous others who faced the injury, or if he’ll succumb to injuries as so many big men have.
We have no way of knowing if Embiid will shed his project label or if he’ll live in the training room. I suppose that’s what’s exciting about it.