Top prospect Joel Embiid had surgery on the stress fracture in his right foot Friday, and now he waits.
He waits to see how far he falls in the NBA draft Thursday night. He waits to see how long it will be before he can hit the court again. He waits to see how he responds to an injury that has a history of giving NBA big men problems.
The Kansas center, who was in the running to be taken No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, had two screws inserted into the navicular bone in his right foot at Southern California Orthopedic Institute, according to a release distributed by agent Arn Tellem.
“The surgery went very well and I’m confident that after appropriate healing he will be able to return to NBA basketball,” said Dr. Richard Ferkel, who performed the surgery, said in the release. “Joel tolerated the surgery without difficulty and will begin his rehabilitation in the near future.”
While it is the same injury that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming suffered twice and ultimately retired because of, it’s impossible to say how Embiid will recover this early in the process. Bill Walton also was slowed by the injury, but that was more than 30 years ago while Zydrunas Ilgauskas was able to make a full recovery from his broken navicular bone and resume a long and productive career.
It is not immediately clear how long Embiid will be out, with estimations ranging from nine months to a full season depending on how the rehabilitation process goes.
The lack of clarity has turned the top of the draft into a crapshoot. Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins and Duke forward Jabari Parker were the two names mentioned most often with Embiid at the top of the draft, with Australian point guard Dante Exum an intriguing, but largely unknown, long-shot possibility.
A lithe and super-athletic 7-footer with nimble footwork and a soft shooting touch, Embiid has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon and, after an impressive workout in front of NBA teams in California this month, seemed to be distancing himself from Wiggins and Parker in the eyes of many talent evaluators.
But the Cavaliers passed on injured Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel with the No. 1 pick last year and are eager to get back into the playoffs after a four-year absence. So taking a chance on an injured Embiid may not be in their plans Thursday night and the Milwaukee Bucks, sitting at No. 2, could also use immediate help as they begin their first season under new ownership.
That could drop Embiid to the Philadelphia 76ers, who are preaching patience in the second year of a massive tear-down and rebuild under GM Sam Hinkie. The Sixers acquired Noel, who was recovering from a torn ACL, on draft night last year and sat him out for the entire season.
Could they take the same approach for a second straight season?
Assuming a full recovery, an Embiid-Noel frontcourt with Michael Carter-Williams running the point could be a dynamic core to get the 76ers back to relevance in the wide open Eastern Conference.
After the Sixers at No. 3, the Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers all wait in the wings.
And so does Embiid.
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