Skip to main content
Main content
NBA news

David Aldridge

Joel Embiid
KU's Joel Embiid has untapped potential -- and a back injury that worries many lottery teams.

Injury questions can't change fact Embiid remains top center


Posted May 19, 2014 11:07 AM - Updated Jun 25, 2014 9:36 AM

In 48 hours, finally, we'll have some clarity.

One of the better prospective Draft classes in recent years will begin to take shape after Tuesday's lottery in Secaucus. There are so many scenarios, each of which could have an enormous effect on both the short-term and long-term prospects of the league's also-rans.

Consider Milwaukee, which has the best chance -- 25 percent -- of getting the top pick after finishing with the league's worst record. If the Bucks buck the trend of the modern era -- only three teams in their position, with the most ping pong balls available, have wound up with the top pick since the modern lottery system was introduced in 1990 -- they would have a shot at adding the most important, impactful player in the franchise's history since Milwaukee took Lew Alcindor (who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) with the first overall pick in the 1969 Draft. (All due respect to Glenn Robinson, whom the Bucks took first overall in 1994, but the Big Dog is to Kareem what Greg Page was to Muhammad Ali, not that there was anything wrong with Greg Page.) The Bucks would be in position to take an Andrew Wiggins, Mr. 44 Inch Vertical, or Jabari Parker, or Julius Randle, or Dante Exum, or Joel Embiid.

Well, maybe not Embiid.

Among the hardest of hardball moves is currently playing out courtesy of Arn Tellem. The NBA's premier player agent represents Embiid, the 7-foot-1 freshman center from Kansas who could well be the top pick overall. But Embiid did not take part in last week's pre-Draft camp in Chicago. And, not only did he not participate, he didn't make his medical records available. This is a problem, as Embiid missed the end of the Jayhawks' season after suffering a stress fracture in his back. You can't come up with five more terrifying words for NBA executives than "stress fracture in his back," even for a 20-year-old who is still scratching the surface of his potential after learning the game by watching Hakeem Olajuwon DVDs in his native Cameroon.

Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid's defense is already at an NBA level.

Think about this for a second. You're Milwaukee, which was so bad last year that the 76ers, who lost an NBA-tying record 26 straight games, couldn't catch you. You looked down your nose at Philly's ineptitude! And now, the reward, a 7-foot-1 kid who is, by all accounts, a terrific person, a guy that's learning how to play at an exponentially fast rate, is available to you if you wind up picking No. 1. You're the Bucks! You don't get Earvin (Magic) Johnson; you get Ervin (No A) Johnson. But you have to now convince your brand new owners that it's worth the risk to take a kid from Cameroon with a bad back over the assorted Wigginses and Parkers that are going to be perennial All-Stars.

Or, you decide to pass on Embiid, who then walks right to the Lakers, picking third or fourth, and becomes the next Kareem.

This is the very smart, very calculating game Tellem is playing. He has a history of coming out on top in these sorts of things. My guess is he's not going to sit idly by and let the ping pong balls fall where they may. He knows exactly where he's going to walk Embiid. My guess is those medical records will be available to Milwaukee around the time that giraffes paint the Sistine Chapel.

Before all of Tuesday's drama, though, comes the final position primer from our team of scouts, college and pro coaches, NBA executives and assorted wise guys that run with us -- the top center prospects, including Embiid, the consensus top big man prospect.

The classic center spot has long been endangered in the NBA, creating a paradox -- it is increasingly pointless to play a style conducive to low-post behemoths. Unless, of course, you have one. Which forces teams to jerry-rig their offenses; witness the hybrid attack in Houston, which had been a freewheeling, let-it-fly 3-point outfit in 2012-13. With Dwight Howard's arrival, that had to necessarily change, and thus we witnessed the absurdity during the Rockets' series with Portland of Howard getting the ball, time and again, in Game 2, while James Harden and Chandler Parsons froze over.

And yet, there isn't a team in the league outside of South Florida and central Oklahoma that wouldn't delight in adding a skilled big man around which it could build. Most big men still operate near the basket, and shoot extremely high-percentage shots, and keep the opposition from doing the same. That's why the big guys still matter, in a league that's increasingly in love with small ball, that values corner threes more than rebounds.

---

DA's Big Board Schedule

POINT GUARDS | SHOOTING GUARDS | SMALL FORWARDS | POWER FORWARDS | CENTERS

---

Centers

A note on the rankings:

This is not a predictor of when these players will be taken. These rankings, based on discussions with dozens of NBA and college coaches, and NBA college scouts and team executives, address the question of how ready players are to play the position which they are assigned: In other words, if there was a game tonight, who would play better at that position tonight, not in three years. Players are ranked based on the position that the coaches and scouts believe is their best NBA position, and even then, there is always disagreement between teams.

For example: UCLA's 6-foot-9 sophomore, Kyle Anderson is a point guard in college (he's a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation's top point guard). And he'll certainly handle the ball a lot as a pro whenever he's drafted. But more NBA teams with whom I've spoken list him as a power forward prospect as a pro -- some compare him with the Spurs' Boris Diaw, who displayed point forward skills early in his career with Atlanta and Phoenix, but is now a more traditional frontcourt player. So we will list Anderson as a power forward on the Big Board.

Again: This is not a mock Draft. They are a complete waste of time, especially this long before June. No one has any idea what will happen between now and then; we don't even know all the teams that will be in the lottery, much less in which order they'll be picking. We don't know if there will be a major injury that will impact what a team wants or needs, (Of course, I will humiliate myself yet again and post a mock Draft just before the June 26 extravaganza. Y'all seem to like it.)

In the interim, what follows is a rough consensus of what NBA personnel people, GMs and coaches, and college coaches that I trust -- and that, obviously, can't be quoted by name -- believe is the pro potential for this year's crop of college and international players.

• "Sleepers" are players almost certain to go in the second round but who may have first-round talent or otherwise have an impact on the teams that select them if they overcome perceived shortcomings.

• "Some Scouts Like" are players who are not certain to declare, but are viewed as potentially draftable if they do -- with an emphasis on "potentially."

All measurements are the official ones available after the Chicago pre-Draft combine. Measurements for players who did not attend the pre-Draft camp are from their respective university or team.

David Aldridge's Big Board 2014: Centers

RANK | NAME | SCHOOL/TEAM | CLASS/AGE | HT | WT > Projected

1. Joel Embiid | Kansas | Freshman | 7-1 | 250 > High-Mid lottery

2. Jusuf Nurkic | Cedevita (Turkey) | 19 | 7-0 | 279 > Late lottery / Mid 1st

3. Walter Tavares | Gran Canaria (Spain) | 22 | 7-2 | 250 > Mid / Late 1st

4. Mitch McGary | Michigan | Sophomore | 6-10 | 255 > Late 1st

5. Nikola Jokic | Mega Vizura (Serbia) | 19 | 6-10 | 250 > 2nd Round

6. Patric Young | Florida | Senior | 6-10 | 246 > 2nd Round

7. Artem Klimenko | Avtodor Saratov | 20 | 7-1 | 228 > 2nd Round

8. Alex Kirk | Illinois | Junior | 6-11 | 252 > 2nd Round

9. Jordan Bachynski | Arizona St. | Senior | 7-2 | 254 > 2nd Round

10. Sim Bhullar | New Mexico St. | Sophomore | 7-5 | 360 > 2nd Round

Sleepers: Alec Brown, 7-1, 235, Wisconsin-Green Bay; Artem Klimenko (20), 7-1, 228, Avtodor Saratov (Russia)

Note: Embiid, Nurkic, Tavares, McGary, Bhuller, Jokic did not participate in Chicago Pre-Draft camp; heights and weights from their college/professional teams

---

   They try not to gush about Embiid, but they can't help themselves. Within a few minutes of prodding, it's Niagara Falls. 

   Personnel types know when there's a diamond in the rough. And Embiid is it. He has come so far so fast that it's hard to gauge where his ceiling may be. At the worst, Embiid, the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year, projects to be a defensive stopper in the mold of a Dikembe Mutombo or Alonzo Mourning. And if his offense catches up with where he is defensively? People try not to say too much. But if he learned from Olajuwon, well, couldn't he be The Dream 2.0 -- or, at least, the next best thing we have?

   "From Day One, he's going to be able to protect your basket defensively," a Southeast Division executive said. "He's going to be able to block and alter shots and rebound. So he's going to be able to impact the game. Offensively, he's like a piece of clay that's coming into shape. He's got a chance to be much better offensively than a Dwight [Howard]. Just watching him move, he can shoot the ball facing the basket. He's just got to get, like any other player or big man, when you get up to this league, if he can develop one more or countermove, it's a wrap."

Joel Embiid
Embiid has played just four years of basketball, but is already a top-flight prospect.

   Embiid causes crusty old pro hearts to skip a beat because he didn't start playing basketball until he was 16, yet he displays so many characteristics of a wily vet.

   "He could play tonight and be effective," a Northwest Division general manager says. "You cannot teach that reaction time, knowing when to block a shot, to go from help defense to getting back to your man, show and recover. It has to be natural because he hasn't been playing. basketball long enough for people to teach him that. Imagine when he is taught, with people who have that knowledge. He gives you the first move and then he gives you the countermove. Young guys don't do that. They give you the countermove and you say, 'You could have gone baseline before you went to the middle.' "

   At KU, Embiid quickly garnered just as much attention as Wiggins, his more heralded teammate. Embiid broke the Jayhawks' freshman record for blocked shots (72) and became an Associated Press second team all-American on the strength of his D and board work (8.1 rebounds per game). According to the school, he blocked a shot in each of his last 22 games. But that fractured back injury suffered late in the season kept him out of the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments.

With Tellem's unwillingness to expose Embiid's medical history, teams are grasping in the dark. It's the reality of the Health Insurance Portabilty and Accountability Act of 1996, known by most as HIPAA. Under HIPAA rules, just about any piece of medical information about an individual is protected from public disclosure. No hospital can be compelled to provide anything other than the bare minimum of information about a patient's condition or treatment; no team can force a university or college to give out information about a player's condition. NBA teams are as in the dark as anyone seeking information.

   Tellem's refusal to give anyone anything was the talk of the Combine last week.

   "The No. 1 issue is going to be the medical issue with him," a Central Division executive said. "There's no other issues really to deal with. With him not having taken the physical in Chicago, he's difficult to project. I don't see him falling out of the top three unless there's a medical red flag."

   Of course, that's just it. No one knows how bad Embiid's back is, or if it's bad at all. And uncertainty is the enemy of a top-five team. It is hard enough projecting whether a teenager or a European is going to be able to make the transition to the NBA. Now imagine doing it when you're not sure how healthy a guy really is.

   "If you are picking from 7 to 15, then you just roll the dice, right?," an Atlantic Division executive said. "Top five, it's going to be tough to pick him without a medical. It's tough just generally picking in the first round. What are you going to tell your owner?"

Nurkic 'a beast', seems ready for NBA, too

    Teams below the top five, by contrast, could well have a palatable alternative in Jusuf Nurkic, the 19-year-old Bosnian center who is rising fast up NBA Draft boards. Nurkic played this season in Turkey and more than held his own in the tough Adriatic League for Cedevita. At almost 280 pounds, Nurkic holds his position effectively and is looking to do damage on offense. He sets a mean pick and is quite effective in the screen-and-roll game that is an NBA staple.

    "That kid's a beast," an admiring Northwest Division executive said. "He's probably going to be effective from Day One. He's 280 [pounds] that can move. I've seen him play a few times. Running into him is like running into a brick wall. But at the same time, very nimble. Can move his feet. In his role, he sets a lot of picks. Runs the floor really well for his size. He can seal you real deep into the post. It's just a matter of him shooting that short jump hook."

   He's no stopper defensively, nor is he a great athlete. Like other European big men who come to the NBA, Nurkic will likely have to adjust to guarding big men who are more nimble than he's seen. Teams with multiple first-round picks may not be eager to pull the trigger on him; in fact, one team I know that is hunting an extra first has him off the list, hearing Nurkic is "kind of wacky." But one man's wacky is another man's self-confident. He's still highly thought of by most personnel types.

    Said another Northwest man: "He's much improved from a mobility standpoint. Great feel for the game. Good hands. He knows how to use his frame. Some guys are big sloths out there but he knows how to use his body to create separation ... I don't know if he's going to be Marc Gasol like but that's what you're looking at ... he's just wide. His whole body, his legs. You can tell he's a big-boned kid. You know when he's on the floor. He's not afraid to put his body into you. I think he'll get some teams in that late lottery. He's got a ways to go, but he's also young. If you want a big, you have to look at him."

   The dropoff in interest after Embiid and Nurkic for big men is acute. But there are still prospects with potential.

Tavares similar to Jazz's Gobert

   Spain's Walter Tavares is every bit of 7-foot-2, though at 22 he's a graybeard among Draft prospects. But that height and good defensive instincts make Tavares a good prospect. He shot almost 60 percent for Gran Canaria of the ACB League, and led the team in rebounds and blocked shots per game. He does not have great feet, nor is he a great athlete. But he's so long.

   "You can see the upside," one Western Conference GM said. "He's a kid that will be a decent defender right off the bat just because of his length. If you look at Rudy Gobert [whom Utah acquired on Draft night last year from Denver, which took him late in the first round], he can do the same thing."

McGary could be a diamond in rough

    Michigan's Mitch McGary is slightly undersized to play in the hole on a regular basis. Of course, personnel types said the same about each Plumlee brother, Mason and Miles, and both played well this season for the Nets and Suns, respectively. But neither Plumlee had the off-court baggage that McGary has.

McGary tested positive for marijuana during the NCAA Tournament, even though he was already on the shelf and not playing after missing all but eight games with a back injury. The positive drug test came after Michigan's Sweet 16 win over Tennessee. Even though everyone knew McGary would only be dressing, not playing, he was picked after the game for random testing. It came back positive, and McGary was off to the NBA.

Mitch McGary
Mitch McGary's scoring has impressed NBA types.

   The drug transgression is something that he'll have to address, but it's not currently viewed by most NBA officials as disqualifying.

   "A lot of those kids do that," one general manager said. "He just happened to get caught."

   McGary's production as a freshman for the national finalist Wolverines is still fresh enough in many minds. He not only rebounded well, he had huge offensive performances -- 23 points against VCU, 25 (with 24 rebounds) against Kansas -- "he just took it to [current Pelicans center Jeff] Withey," one personnel birddog recalled.

But the back injury, which led to surgery in January, scuttled his sophomore season. The positive drug test finished it. And while he's working out in Michigan, he's not yet ready to work out for teams -- which made skipping the Chicago combine easier. NBA teams will still have to be made comfortable. Backs, I was told a long time ago, usually don't get better with time. There is also concern that a player with McGary's body type can get heavy very quickly, which is not good for the back, legs or any other part of the lower body. In addition, McGary's been playing with plantar fascitis in his foot since he was a teenager.

   "If not for the medicals, I think McGary ends up being a lock first-round pick," one scouting director said. "Tremendous motor, plays hard, is relentless rebounding the basketball. A guy who embraces the role of what he is and does it really, really well. I think the suspension issue and the marijuana issue is less of an issue than not coming to Chicago and skipping the interviews.

"Without coming to Chicago, without doing the interviews, having a chance to work him out, without all of that, he could very easily go in the second round. It gives him an opportunity to make good out of a bad situation."

   The best of the rest among centers all are eye of the beholder types.

Sweet-shooting big man Kirk impresses at Combine

   New Mexico's Alex Kirk left after his junior season, and impressed a few NBA types by losing some weight before showing up at the Chicago combine. "He lost weight, and it was good to see," a Southeast Division nan said.

    But the 7-foot junior still has to show he can stick with it and not show up with a "slow pitch softball kind of frame," as another scouting head put it. "To his credit, he's a tough kid," the scout said. "He's not going to back down from anybody. He's more athletic than he appears. He can step out and shoot it. Decent rebounder, decent hands. As a third center, he's probably capable of doing that. It's just a matter of staying in shape and working on his body, because it can get away from him if he's not careful."

    Kirk, who was a top prospect coming out of high school, helped himself in Chicago by being one of the best shooters on the move at any size. He finished second to Virginia's Joe Harris in shooting on the move, making 27 of 40 shots, and he was one of the best shooters at 15 feet in any direction.   

   "He showed people a little bit of skill there," a Southeast Division executive said. "He shot the ball well in drills, but he didn't shoot well in games. He barely shot it. I think he's soft. [New Mexico teammate Cameron] Bairstow was more physical than he was."

And there's more ...

• Florida's Patric Young certainly is chiseled at 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds. But that's a little undersized to play against grown men in the pros. Still, given his work ethic and the Florida pedigree, Young will likely get a look sometime in the second round. He could do worse than have a similar career arc to another former Gator and Billy Donovan student, Udonis Haslem.

Haslem had to beat around the bushes on the fringes of the NBA before sticking with Miami. He has been a key part of three different Heat title teams (including the last two) and become one of the most celebrated (and accomplished) players in franchise history.

"He's gonna battle, he's gonna hit you, he's gonna screen, he's gonna hit the floor," one executive said of Young. "He's never going to give you a lot of numbers offensively ... he's going to do a lot of little things for you, he's gonna do a lot of things that show up in the box score. I respect how hard that kid plays."

• Massive Sim Bhullar, who declared for the Draft after two seasons at New Mexico State, is just ... huge. At 7-foot-5 and 360 pounds, Bhullar is among the biggest prospects to ever come down the pike, an inch taller than Utah's Mark Eaton, but a couple of inches behind former Bullets/Wizards center Gheorge Muresan.

Bhullar shot 65 percent last season for the Aggies, leading them to consecutive NCAA appearances with back-to-back Western Athletic Conference Tournament MVP honors. There's always going to be concern that someone that size won't be able to keep up his stamina, especially at the NBA level, and Bhullar could well go undrafted. But if you're going to take a chance on someone, I was told long ago, take a chance on somebody big. Bhullar fits the bill.

   "I really like the big fella," said a college coach whose team played New Mexico State this past season. "He can score on the block. Has a nice feel for the game. Made a big jump in being even more nasty and forceful with his play. I think he can help someone in the league. It was definitely better than it was before.  He wasn't a liability. His first year, there were times where he was a liability.

"Last year, you could maneuver him and beat him down the floor. This year I thought [his stamina] was vastly improved. Now, he's a huge dude, so it isn't as much as a 6-9, 220 dude. But I didn't think he was as much a liability ... he was on that right block. But they would drive in the paint and if you helped a little bit, they just tossed that thing up. And he would finish with authority. Rarely would he have to bring it down and gather himself. He's a little more bouncy than people think. He is a load. And he can pass. He got much better the second year."

   As the NBA game gets smaller and smaller, it may be harder for Bhullar to find a home. But it just takes one team.

   "He's not bad," a veteran pro scout said. "He might be the biggest human being I've ever seen. I mean, he's gigantic. He is 7-5 and he's all of 360, 370. He's mammoth. He can catch. He's a 55, 56, percent free-throw shooter, which obviously isn't very good. But ... [the Clippers'] DeAndre Jordan is a 38 percent free-throw shooter. Now, stamina is an issue for him. He's a really large human being. I don't know if someone takes a chance on him or not. At 58, what do you have to lose? This kid's thicker than [Muresan] was. I can't tell you how big he is. Big head, big hands."

• Baylor sophomore Isaiah Austin has already overcome a great deal, having played for the last several years without sight in his right eye. He was an honorable mention all Big 12 selection this past season, when he led the conference with 119 blocked shots, the second-highest single season total in school history. And he helped lead Baylor to an NCAA appearance after the Bears took the NIT title the year before. But he'll have a lot of work to do to convince NBA types he can play regular minutes in the hole.

   "He is not a center," a Western Conference GM said. "He may not even be a face-up four. He runs the floor real well and can shoot. He takes a wide path around physical contact. He shoots the ball fairly well at that size. He can be a guy that can create space by taking his guy away from the basket, and that may be his best position. But if you put him in the post, he would struggle mightily in that position."

   It's hard to find a natural position for Austin, who weighed 219.5 pounds in Chicago, at the next level.

   "He hasn't lived up to his ranking, but it isn't any fault of his effort or desire," one sympathetic personnel man said. "He's got a tough climb because of his body style ... he's not a great athlete laterally, so what position does he defend? He's too thin to guard a five and not mobile enough to guard a four. He's kind of in that no-man's land. But, defensively, if nobody's pushing on him or leaning on him, he can block shots."

• Serbian prospect Nikola Jokic is just 19 and is more raw than ready, but after playing for Mega Vizura last season, he put his name in for the Draft. He played for the international team at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, where he started slow but progressed as the week went on. And on a team with a few players that will likely be lottery picks in the next year or two, Jokic held his own. He's likely a stash second-round pick for one of the teams with multiple second-rounders.

• Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski measured 7-foot-1 in shoes in Chicago, and impressed scouts by looking pretty mobile, with good shot blocking skills. The senior was the Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and was second team all Pac 12. He's not the most physically imposing guy, but scouts say he's gotten a little tougher around the basket the last couple of years. He's got a jump hook in his arsenal and has gotten better at finishing lobs and looks from penetrating guards. "He stays in his lane," one scout said.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

SEARCH NEWS
LATEST VIDEOS
photoOff the Radar Performance: Isaiah Canaan
Isaiah Canaan scores 15 points and dishes out six assists in Monday's loss to Sacramento.
photoThe Starters: Best of Summer League
Check out the best moments from The Starters in the Vegas Summer League.
photoThe Starters: Ray McCallum Interview
Ray McCallum joins the guys for a staring contest, cup stacking and, of course, basketball conversation.
photoPlayer of the Day: Ray McCallum
Sacramento's come-from-behind victory was led by a 29-point effort from Ray McCallum, the title game's MVP.
photoThe Starters: Vegas Top 10
The Starters relive their top ten plays from the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League.