Reports that potential No. 1 draft pick Joel Embiid has suffered a stress fracture in his right foot could dramatically shake up the top of what is seen as one of the best NBA drafts in years. It's scary enough to change many teams' strategies a week before the draft is set to happen.
Here are the key questions that each team in the high lottery must answer before making their decisions next week.
How bad is the injury?
This is the question every team now knows. Arn Tellem, Embiid's agent, initially told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that he will know more Friday, but later confirmed the diagnosis.
Joel Embiid has suffered stress fracture in right foot and slated for surgery on Friday, agent Arn Tellem says.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 19, 2014
The stress fracture is in the navicular bone in Embiid's right foot.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 19, 2014
But it's likely not this specific injury that has teams scared; it's Embiid's string of injuries. He missed long stretches at the end of Kansas' season with a back problem, and in fact, many teams were still in the dark about that injury as he began the draft circuit. Embiid appeared to have eased the Cavaliers' concerns in a workout earlier this week, which makes this foot injury all the more confusing.
Now, teams must decide if Embiid's issues are chronic. On the surface, the combination of a back and foot problem for a seven-footer are scary. They suggest potential issues to his core, which will affect him for years to come and are extremely difficult to fix. The more positive, but more remote possibility is that these injuries are coming from Embiid growing into his body and will lessen over time as it gets used to the basketball grind. Embiid is certainly not carrying as much weight on his foot as Yao Ming or Zydrunas Ilgauskas, for example.
Of the two, the first possibility seems more realistic based on the limited information available. Foot and back injuries are major red flags for big men especially, so it's understandable to fear the worst.
This is where team physicians must do their jobs and try to project several years down the road. It is their findings that will determine just how far Embiid slips in the draft.
How did this injury happen?
Initially, it appears it didn't happen when he visited Cleveland.
Embiid's undergoing tests, but he'd been running in recent days without issue, sources tell Yahoo. Also, no injury occurred in Cavs workout.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 19, 2014
However, further digging revealed that the Cavaliers were indeed the team that discovered the problem.
Cleveland doctors discovered right foot injury in exams and passed info onto Embiid reps, sources tell Yahoo. Fear is a right foot fracture.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 19, 2014
That's not to say the injury happened at one single moment. Perhaps Embiid felt some pain in one workout, but shrugged it off and/or attempted to mask it knowing that there were already questions about his back. It's not unheard of for an injury to have a delayed onset.
Does this mean the Cavaliers won't draft him No. 1?
The Cavaliers are one of the most difficult teams to peg, so nobody can say for certain. However, it certainly sounds like they are planning to pass on Embiid.
My next mock will now have Jabari Parker going No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) June 19, 2014
Even before this injury, it wasn't a slam dunk that Embiid would go No. 1. Embiid appeared to be the favorite of the front office, but there are rumors that owner Dan Gilbert, who wants desperately to make the playoffs next year, preferred a more NBA-ready player like Parker or even Andrew Wiggins. If Embiid's injury is even remotely serious, that faction will only grow louder.
If not Embiid, who will Cleveland take?
Parker and Wiggins immediately leap to the front of the discussion. Parker is a better offensive player and is likely more NBA-ready, while Wiggins offers more upside. Cleveland has a hole at the small forward position that either Parker or Wiggins could fill, though both offer skill sets that overlap with other young Cavaliers like Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson.
This wouldn't be the Cavaliers, though, without a wild card option: Australian point guard Dante Exum. It's unclear if the Cavaliers' interest is serious, but they are reportedly rushing him in for a workout.
As Jeff Goodman reports, Joel Embiid suffered a foot injury. Cavs want to workout Dante Exum for No. 1 spot now too, sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) June 19, 2014
Exum is a poor fit with Kyrie Irving and Waiters, but Cleveland took Bennett last year even though he played the same position as Thompson, and the Cavs could do so again. It's more likely that they are just doing its due diligence now that one of their other options (Embiid) has another injury.
There's also the chance that Cleveland trades the pick in a big move. Using the pick to land Kevin Love, for example, might cause LeBron James to eye his hometown a little more closely in free agency. There was also talk about a deal with the 76ers for the No. 3 pick and Thaddeus Young, which would allow Philadelphia to select Wiggins.
Regardless, the chances of Embiid going No. 1 have dipped dramatically.
How are Cavaliers fans taking this?
On the one hand, they are upset:
That being said, it's hard to justify the investment in a guy who has had a few back issues and now foot problems in just four years of competitive basketball.
On the other, they are trying to maintain perspective.
Cavs fans gonna be real mad when they take Jabari Parker, guy they would have given an arm for pre-lottery.— FearTheSword (@FearTheSword) June 19, 2014
Will this affect Embiid's draft stock?
It depends on the severity of the injury, but if it's bad, Embiid could really slide.
If you thought teams were scared of Embiid with back questions…top 10 GM: "it would be real hard now" to draft Embiid high w/foot issues.— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) June 19, 2014
The Bucks, who have the No. 2 pick, already have a stocked young frontcourt with Larry Sanders and John Henson. The 76ers could use just about everything, but they also already have Nerlens Noel up front. Orlando (Nikola Vucevic) and Utah (Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter) also have stocked frontcourts. That leaves Boston and the Lakers at No. 6 and No. 7, respectively, to decide if Embiid's health is worth the gamble.
As the salary cap has tightened, making rookie contracts bigger bargains if the player is ready to contribute sooner, teams have become much more concerned about injury-prone prospects. Noel, the likely No. 1 pick coming into last year's draft, fell to No. 6 after tearing his ACL. Embiid's foot injury might not be that severe on its own, but the combination of it and the back problem may also be of even more concern to NBA teams. If this foot injury is a big problem, expect Embiid to slide.
Should this affect Embiid's draft stock significantly?
This is a different question. It's possible that teams are overly cautious when selecting players who have major injuries. Top prospects like Embiid are picked for the long haul, not for the first year. The fractured kneecap that Blake Griffin suffered was supposed to be a problem for years to come, but Griffin has instead remained healthy after missing his first full season. Noel will be another interesting test case: The 76ers could have rushed him back sooner, but elected to have him sit for his entire first year in an attempt to build his skills and body. If Noel is healthy going forward, those five teams that passed on him will badly regret it.
It's certainly possible that a team could still draft Embiid high and put him on an immediate maintenance program to improve his core and prevent future injuries, even if it means missing some time his rookie season. Should that plan work out, the decision could have a massive reward.
But it's also a major risk in a league that is becoming more risk averse, particularly in the draft. Nobody wants to be the GM that selected the next Greg Oden with even far more red flags.