Joel Embiid is the number one player in this draft. He won’t go number one anymore and you can’t fault teams at the top passing on him after it was reported last week that he’d need surgery to repair the navicular bone in his foot, after already dealing with a stress fracture in his back during his lone college basketball season. It’s been said a million times now, but back and foot injuries for big men are like rust on a boat.
By now everyone knows the history of navicular bone injuries in the NBA. Bill Walton, Yao Ming, Kevin McHale, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brook Lopez all suffered the same injury during their career. The circumstances behind each were different along with the results post surgery, but there is obvious cause for concern with the direction Embiid’s career will go. We tend to think of larger people being bruisers and able to withstand a beating because they’re so big. But the truth is when people start getting into the seven feet and above range you actually become more delicate. Humans just aren’t meant to be that big, which makes you appreciate the careers of Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, and O’Neal even more when you think about how durable they all were. The injury to Embiid has changed the perception of his career path, what hasn’t changed though is his rare talent.
NBA centers with athleticism and skill are a rare commodity. Hell, seven footers that can stay on a basketball court are rare. It’s why teams like Memphis reached for the immobile Hasheem Thabeet 2nd overall or the Clippers taking Michael Olowokandi with the 1st overall pick in 1998 who was dominant in the Big West Conference, but couldn’t even get his team out of the first round of the NIT in his final season. Over the last 31 drafts centers were picked first 15 times. NBA center prospects are a lot like quarterback prospects in the NFL. If you hit on the right one you’ll be in contention for years, just look at the current NBA champions. And that’s what Joel Embiid represents in this year’s draft if he can go on to have a healthy career.
Below are the freshman year stats of the best centers of the past couple of decades along with Embiid and a few other more recent center prospects.
And here are the same players freshman year stats per 40 minutes.
Embiid’s freshman year numbers stack up very well with some of the best centers in NBA history. His FG% was topped only by Ewing. His rebound rate per 40 was better than Hakeem, Ewing, and Duncan. His 2.3 assists per 40 was bested everyone not named Shaquille, and he averaged 8.8 trips to the free throw line per 40 which was better than anyone else on the list. Going off of their freshman numbers Embiid absolutely belongs with the elite centers of the last 30 years. The elite ones being Ewing, Olajuwon, O’Neal, Robinson, and Duncan. That group has collected 4 Rookie of the Year awards, 3 Defensive Player of the Year trophies, 5 regular season MVP awards, 17 NBA Finals appearances, 8 Finals MVP awards, and 13 championship rings over the last 30 years.
When you have an elite center you win, which is why tomorrow a team in the top 10 will be justified in picking Embiid broken bones and all.