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Scott Howard-Cooper

joel embiid
Joel Embiid (left), who hasn't played since March 1, is averaging 11.2 points, 8.1 boards and 2.6 blocks this year.

Kansas' Embiid's case for top pick clouded by back injury

Posted Mar 14, 2014 7:49 PM

NBA teams are waiting to see when -- or if -- Joel Embiid returns to Kansas' lineup before deciding whether the back injury that has sidelined him for at least the current Big 12 tournament is a temporary issue or enough of a risk that it could eliminate him as a candidate for the No. 1 pick in the Draft.

While a stress fracture in his back means Embiid will face unique scrutiny no matter what if he leaves school as a one-and-done, there will obviously be a difference in the draft stock of the freshman center depending if he returns for the NCAA tournament next week or misses multiple rounds. There is also the possibility somewhere in between, that Embiid is ruled healthy enough to play soon but is clearly bothered in the comeback from a stress fracture with a lot of NBA eyes watching for the slightest signal of trouble.

Several executives and scouts rate Embiid as the best prospect heading toward June 26 while others prefer Duke small forward Jabari Parker, with Parker at No. 1 and Embiid second in the latest rankings in consultation with front offices. It is close enough that the NCAA tournament beginning next week could tilt the balance, especially for Embiid and his limited body of work in major events compared to international and U.S. high school competitions that have measured most standouts.

Now, everyone is in wait-and-see mode.

One executive last week: "If I had the No. 1 pick, I would take Embiid. You've seen him get better as the year's gone on, he's got unbelievable size, good hands, and you've seen improvement. Those things are so hard to find."

The same executive after news of the stress fracture: "It is an issue for sure, but to be honest I will have to do more research on it."

Thomas Embiid told the Kansas City Star that his son's injury is not "too serious" and that "It's improving. Hopefully he can come back soon." Kansas coach Bill Self told the paper he is "not optimistic that there is a definite time frame, but I'm very optimistic that it's possible that if our team is successful enough, he could play again this year." If Kansas, No. 10 in the latest Associated Press rankings, does not get eliminated from the NCAA tournament, in other words.

Other draft notes in the final days before Selection Sunday sets the tournament field:

> It's becoming harder and harder to find front offices that consider UCLA's Zach LaVine a point guard. A 1.9-1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio is killing LaVine, and meanwhile Kyle Anderson is handling the ball more as a point forward. The potential June impact, if he leaves school as a freshman, is that LaVine is far less attractive as another athletic wing than he would have been as a 6-5 point guard whose physical attributes could cause a lot of matchup problems at the next level. The 40.7 percent on three-pointers does help, though.

> Jusuf Nurkic, a physical 6-11, 280-pound center from Bosnia playing in Croatia, is doing a speed climb up draft boards. At least one team has him in the top 10 and, depending who enters the draft, Nurkic could beat Dario Saric as the first European off the board in June, a feat that would have been impossible to imagine a few months ago. Barring a shocking development, Australia's Dante Exum, projected for the top five, will be the first player from outside North America taken.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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