Like a flawless diamond, a quality center is hard to find, but their impact is just as valuable, for the best big men control the paint, clean the glass, alter/block shots, and use their size to score in many ways.
Simply, a quality center can dominate in a way few others can.
Consider Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Between them, there are 27 NBA titles, though Russell, the famed Celtic, calls 11 his own.
So, whenever a big man comes along who shows signs of dominance, NBA coaches, executives, and scouts start drooling, and it has essentially become tradition that that young center will be taken first overall in the NBA Draft.
The latest player to fit that mold is 20-year-old Joel Embiid, a 7-foot, 250-pounder out of Kansas who was projected as the top overall pick in Thursday’s draft.
But then, with less than a week before the draft, Embiid had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot, with two screws being inserted into the navicular bone. Reports stated that his recovery process would last 4-6 months, which means he would miss summer league and training camp.
It’s unclear how far Embiid might fall in the draft because of that injury, not to mention questions about a stress fracture suffered in his back earlier this year. Some league sources think he’ll fall out of the top 10, or even the lottery, because back/feet injuries tend to be problematic for centers. Others say it might not matter. “I don’t think it will really affect things, to tell you the truth,” said one Eastern Conference scout.
Embiid could fall several spots, perhaps to the Celtics, who have the sixth overall pick.
But when healthy, Embiid proved himself worthy of being the latest center to be drafted first overall.
“It’s just hard to find size,” said a Western Conference scout. “He has great feet, great hands. He’s mobile. He’s very athletic. He’s got good timing on his shot-block. The other thing he can do is he can step out and make a midrange jump shot right now. He makes free throws.”
Embiid, who averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks during his freshman season, is also compared to arguably the most skilled center in recent NBA history, a mobile 7-footer with excellent footwork, hand-eye coordination, athleticism, and an array of dazzling post moves — Olajuwon.
“Yes, because of his footwork,” said one Western Conference executive, saying that Embiid most definitely provides glimpses of Olajuwon, a Hall of Fame center with the Houston Rockets.
“[Embiid has] got patience in the post beyond his years. He really has a good feel with his back to the basket, which is really unusual in today’s game. Guys just don’t have that. It’s an unusual skill that he has in today’s game. There’s just not that many people with that feel around the basket. He’s got all the tools to pull off what he needs to in the low post. He’s way ahead of anyone else in the draft, as far as where he is offensively.”
Embiid also draws comparisons to Olajuwon because both hail from Africa — Olajuwon from Nigeria, Embiid from Cameroon. Both picked up the game rather late — Olajuwon at age 15 after playing soccer, Embiid reportedly at 16 after playing soccer and volleyball.
That Embiid is relatively new to the sport is even more enticing to NBA scouts and executives, especially after he established himself as the most dominant center in the college game in his freshman season.
“For how little he has played and how quickly he has come along, Embiid has been pretty special,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “You can’t teach size, and he’s one of the few true centers in college basketball, as well as in the world, that are not playing in the NBA.”
Said one Eastern Conference executive, “Everyone claims that he’s only been playing for — well, it sounds like it gets shorter every time I hear it — but let’s just say it’s five years. Even if that’s true, it’s pretty impressive at the level that he’s playing at even if he has only been playing that long.”
Said another Eastern Conference executive, “So you look at the strides the kid has made in just a short couple of years and you would think that he would continue to get better and better and better and have a huge upside. That’s something that’s a positive as well — that he’s grown so quickly in such a short time. Is that good? Is that bad? Only time will tell.”
If Embiid had a national coming-out party, it came in January against nationally ranked Oklahoma State, when he scored 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting with 11 rebounds and eight blocks. (He broke the Kansas freshman record with 72 blocked shots and was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.)
But a month earlier, in a game against New Mexico, Embiid used Olajuwon’s trademark move, the “Dream Shake.” It’s a complex combination of shot-fakes and jab-steps that often left defenders puzzled and helpless, and when Embiid did it, the comparisons to Olajuwon truly blossomed.
“I think the only reason the Hakeem [comparison] came is because [Embiid] did the Dream Shake a couple times, but if he doesn’t do the Dream Shake in those games, I don’t know who to compare him to,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “I know a lot of people compare him to Hakeem. Maybe he could get there. But right now, I don’t see Hakeem. If he keeps progressing like he is, then yeah, maybe, for sure.”
The huge question mark with Embiid is his health. Along with the fractured navicular bone, the stress fracture in his lower back kept him sidelined late in the college season, including in the NCAA Tournament.
And though he has said that his back is fine, NBA teams are concerned because back issues, like foot issues, have a tendency to be nagging for centers.
“The injury situation with his back is a big concern,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “Someone that young to start having problems with his back and only playing a 32-game schedule and only playing twice a week, where now you’re going to play 82 games, 3-4 games a week, back-to-backs, and you’re going to have guys leaning on you, the same size except stronger? So, I still think there are some medical issues that have to be resolved.”
Said an Eastern Conference executive, “As far as back injuries go, they are a concern in that they tend to linger, they tend to be something with bigger players that as they run and the disks are just hammering on each other.”
Speaking of Embiid, one Western Conference scout recalled the 2007 draft, featuring Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas swingman Kevin Durant. Portland took Oden, who was plagued by injury issues, while Seattle took Durant, who was MVP last season.
“Now, revisionist history would say, ‘God, Portland [expletive] up. They could’ve had Kevin Durant, they take Greg Oden,’ ” said the scout. “But I guarantee you at the time, the idea of taking Oden over Kevin Durant wasn’t even remotely considered controversial.”
The scout added, “Any time a guy is 6-11 or above and has a chance to be a 20-point-per-game scorer, double-figure rebounder, three or four blocks per game, a guy who has unique skill as a rebounder, a guy like Oden, you have to take him. Players are looked upon as commodities, so if there’s a great big man and a lesser smaller player, you’re taking the big man, because you’re drafting commodities.”
Several scouts and executives said Embiid compares more to Oden than Olajuwon, but the hope is that Embiid won’t be as injury prone — and that he’ll continue to progress.
“He’s extremely talented in that you don’t see 7-footers move like he does, like really effortlessly,” said one Eastern Conference executive.
“He still has his moments where he’ll end up on the ground or where he’ll make his young 7-footer moves, where they-don’t-know-their-body-yet-type plays. But he’s got such good offensive movement and abilities and hands. Quick decision-making with the ball. He’s a great passer out of the post when he gets double teamed.
“And then defensively, I think he can be a pretty good defensive player, but I really believe that his bread and butter in the NBA will be as an offensive player. He’s just so skilled offensively. And then you add some shot-blocking and rebounding and his length and size.
“He’ll be a pretty good player.”