My Worries about Joel Embiid and the Sixers

After two years recovering from injury, the center will finally make his NBA debut this season. But I’m still worried, and no features, Instagram videos, highlight reels, minutes restrictions, or photos can change my mind.

When the Philadelphia 76ers take the court for the 2016–17 season, it’ll mark the most excited I’ve been for Philly basketball since Allen Iverson made his return.

For a list of reasons about 13 pages long, the Process was necessary and, in fairness, did end with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, both labeled as the best prospects in their respective classes. But I’m still hesitant to dive head-first into total excitement. In fact, I’m a bit worried, which centers around Embiid. At least for now.

I can’t shake my fears with the 7-foot native of Cameroon. Blame it on past players like Yao Ming and Greg Oden. Players who had the potential, but couldn’t stay healthy. Players who suffered stress fractures in their navicular bones.

The trouble with stress fractures is in the name. Because of gravity, repetition, height, weight, and anatomy (which would require a more qualified professional explanation), jumping and landing puts immense pressure on the bones in the feet of 7-footers. Stress fractures are always a risk because there is always stress.

And the injury to my favorite Sixer since Iverson hasn’t helped. Simmons rolled his ankle during the final scrimmage of training camp — because when else does something like that happen? Tests revealed a fracture in his foot. Simmons and the Sixers opted for surgery, and his agent may require Simmons to sit for the entire season. As much as it crushes me to hear it — Simmons was slated to lead the offense and play about 30 minutes a night — I prefer he rest instead of rushing back like Kevin Durant in 2014, which ended in three surgeries and his missing most of the season. As Bill Simmons wrote about KD, you “can’t mess around with feet. Can’t. Can’t. Can’t. Not in basketball.

The silver lining is since Simmons’ injury was an acute fracture. It wasn’t stress related (aka it wasn’t tall-guy related), meaning I don’t have to be paranoid about potential foot curses involving the 76ers.

Still, Simmons’ injury did put my worries for Embiid’s feet even closer to the forefront of my mind. There’s no butterfly effect with Simmons in relation to Embiid. One fractured foot doesn’t equal another, especially when the two injuries are different. Yet to see a foot injury happen so closely to Embiid feels like a cruel jape by the basketball gods that says, “Don’t get too comfortable.”

By now we’ve all seen the photos of Embiid’s abilities. We’ve daydreamed about the potential we read in the tweets, and we’ve read the articles on his health. We know he has ridiculous range and can launch shots from close to Steph Curry range with the same effort it takes to shoot free-throws.

If Embiid lives up to the hype, he could be the next Olajuwon . Or Embiid could be the next Kwame Brown. Or he could have the same left-hanging feeling of Bill Walton — a player who dominated in spurts, but couldn’t stay healthy.

My attempts to be totally optimistic about Embiid are stifled knowing this particular injury has hampered other big men throughout NBA history. Stress fractures for centers lack enough success stories to make the claims of full recovery entirely credible. They’re wonky and inconsistent. ACL and Tommy John surgeries are major procedures, but the success rate of recovery greatly outweighs the other side. Navicular bones in NBA big men don’t.

Example: Longtime Cleveland Cavaliers big man Zydrunas Ilgauskas missed over 200 games throughout his career, including his entire rookie season, due to the same issues as Embiid. Ilgauskas eventually opted to have bone-graft surgery in 2000 (as did Embiid 15 years later) on the navicular bone in his foot and played for eight seasons without another fracture. (Which begs the question why aren’t bone grafts opted for sooner?)

But the other side to Embiid’s situation includes players like Yao, Walton, and Brendan Haywood. Yao missed 159 games over a three-year span and was forced to retire in 2011. Haywood suffered his stress fracture in his left foot in 2013 and missed the entire season. A year later, he appeared in 22 games, averaging 1.6 points over 5.4 minutes. He was out of the league the following year.

Haywood was in his mid-30s at the time, and Yao is six inches taller and outweighs Embiid by over 60 pounds, which could ease the minds of Embiid fans. That is until you remember Embiid was only 20 years old when he was injured.

I would settle for eight straight seasons of Embiid considering he’s two years in already and the potential of where the roster could be by 2024. But there’s also something to be said if eight years is the best case scenario. Never making 10 years for potential as immense as Embiid’s is a tease as much as it is shortchange.

To the Sixers’ credit, they understand the potential disaster surrounding navicular bones and have approached Embiid the right way. They’ve limited his participation in scrimmages, and, during the season, Embiid will be on a minutes restriction. He won’t play in at least one game of any back-to-back.

More, the Sixers have the time. Jerry Colangelo and his son, Bryan, who took Hinkie’s spot, afford the new front office patience with ownership. Dario Saric is joining the Sixers for his first season stateside. Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick in 2015, is an offensive force in the low-post and has a year of experience. Entering his fourth season, Nerlens Noel is the veteran of the young core. He’s a valuable rim protector and possesses the frenetic athleticism big men need in the pace-and-space era. The best part: Noel is only 22. So is Embiid. Okafor and Saric are 21 and Simmons is 20. Robert Covington is a viable three-point shooter and only 25.

Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson — veterans who are both 28— will be the stabilizers to the backcourt while the Sixers sift through their lineups and determine what works. The need for Embiid’s clean bill of health and otherworldly contribution isn’t as dire in 2016–17.

At least in theory.

The Sixers have time, but with the unknown of how Embiid will perform and how his body will hold up, in some convoluted way, they really don’t have time. Embiid’s either the cog that spins the wheel, or the monkey wrench in the system. And until that’s figured out, he’s damming the (new and improved) process.

Before the Sixers reach the first preseason game, there have been grumblings about which direction they’re going. Because that question can’t be answered as of October 4, 2016, Embiid is holding the team hostage. The tight squeeze from Embiid’s giant “What If” has his fellow big men feeling claustrophobic. Noel has openly called the frontcourt a logjam:

“I think it’s just silly . . . this situation that we are in now with three starting centers,” Noel said to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With the departure of Sam Hinkie, I would have figured that management would be able to get something done this summer.”

Noel went on to liken the center situation to an NFL team with three quarterbacks. Brett Brown said he understands Noel’s comments, but it’s still unsettling. Forgive my Hinkie (and Chip Kelly for that matter) PTSD, but I worry about the culture of the team — which majority owner Joshua Harris set out to change by his ousting of Hinkie. As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor says, a trade must be made sooner rather than later to remedy it:

Trading Noel or Okafor might be in their best interest, even if it’s not for what’s fair value on paper. Organizations can’t build a foundation when they have disgruntled players stalling the culture-developing process. Trading one of their bigs at half price will look like a bad deal on the surface, but the sense of finality and security the team would receive in return would be more than worth it.

Fractures before the season begins are can be exacerbated when a player sees a low number under ‘MP.’ That goes double for a salary cap that will reach its highest point at the end of the season. Okafor and Noel — who’s playing for his next contract — are essentially trying out for other teams. We know the trade is coming. Okafor/Noel are expendable with Embiid back and with the potential issues that causes to the team’s culture.

But what else can the team do? O’Conner and I want to stabilize culture, yet calling for a move now means investing in the unknown with Embiid. Noel and O’Connor are both right, but as Bob Ford of the Inqurier wrote:

But amid all that excitement, the fact remains that nothing is more important to the team’s ascendancy than the strength of the tiny, brittle bone in Embiid’s right foot that has been repaired twice. If there is a third time, that won’t be a charm for the Sixers but a chasm in the middle of the court.

The fate of the frontcourt rests solely on Embiid. It would be irresponsible to make a move without knowing if he can hold up because Ford’s chasm represents the odd man out. If Okafor is the odd man, then Embiid is healthy. If Embiid isn’t healthy or he underwhelms, then the Sixers are more likely to build around Okafor, leaving Noel on the outside looking in. All the while trying to nurse Embiid back a third time.

I prefer Okafor be the odd man because that means Embiid is healthy. Noel provides a better defensive option as he can guard multiple positions in a league where switching and playing small have become the norm. Okafor will be a 20-point scorer in the league, but if the Sixers build around him, then the franchise has lost two of three players in their frontcourt instead of one. I’d rather have two, particularly if Embiid lives up to the hype.

But will the Sixers wait? Or is it simply going all in with Embiid no matter what? In a perfect world, the Noel and Okafor moves would only happen after a full season of the team’s being together. Except we don’t live in paradise, so I worry that due to the logjam and the subsequent unhappiness from Noel, the Sixers may be forced into a decision regarding Embiid’s health too early.

How many games does it take to earn a clean bill of health? Durant was cleared in 2015, but the basketball world still needed most of that season to determine if he was healed. And again, he’s not 7-feet-tall and about 300 lbs.

I don’t want the Sixers to trade a player like Okafor too soon, even if it’s at the possible detriment to the culture. Embiid’s health can’t be gauged simply by playing in five minute spurts until further notice. Understanding what Embiid will be and how his body will react are data the franchise needs so they can make the most educated choices on the direction they want to go.

I’m rooting for the team’s patience. I’m rooting for Embiid and his health. I’m rooting that he really is the next Olajuwon. A beautiful blend of freakish athlete, offensive maestro, and defensive stalwart. But that’s still a lot of body pressing on to that bone, so just don’t blame me for wincing every time he jumps.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Chazz Scogna’s story.