This was never supposed to be Joel Embiid’s draft. College stars Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins were expected to be the frontrunners for 2014. But as the NCAA season began, Embiid, a center for Kansas, amazed, prompting his coach to compare him to Hakeem Olajuwon. He was ascendant — the kind of guy an NBA team tanks for.
Then came the injuries. Embiid sprained his left knee early in the season and suffered a bone contusion, missing only one game. Later, right before the Big 12 tournament, doctors diagnosed him with a spondylolysis, a stress fracture in his lower back. The injury forced him out of the NCAA tournament but not out of the NBA draft. Many draft boards had him going first, convinced that teams would see the potential beyond the injuries.
But last week Embiid had surgery to repair a stress fracture in the navicular bone of his foot. He’s reported to be out four to six months, and with the draft on Thursday there’s no telling where he’ll fall. USA Today now projects that Embiid will be the third pick and an NBA.com consensus mock draft projects him at fifth.
Teams may be right to show concern about Embiid’s injuries, in part because of his height. Embiid is listed as 7’ tall by ESPN. Examining recent high draft picks reveals that taller players have gone on to miss a larger percentage of games than their shorter peers. Since 2000, 97 players 6’9” and taller have been drafted by teams with lottery selections (the first 13 or 14 picks in the draft, depending on the year). These players missed 17.9 percent of their potential NBA games (regular season and postseason, where appropriate) to injury over the course of their careers, while the 95 players 6’8” or shorter missed just 13.5 percent. The percentage of games missed generally increases as height increases. Players 7’0” or taller have missed nearly 24 percent of their games.
That doesn’t factor in Embiid’s specific injuries. The navicular bone injury is the most troubling. The navicular is one of the tarsal bones located in the mid-foot, and an injury to the area is significant. In Embiid’s case, it required surgical intervention.
Other players have had navicular fractures (it was the only injury to sideline Michael Jordan for an extended period of time in Chicago), but it’s been fairly uncommon the last few years. I keep a database of every injury in the NBA for any player who’s played since 2009, including each player’s entire injury history, even if the injury took place before 2009. Only seven affected NBA players out of a possible 900 in my data set had a navicular fracture.
Perimeter players including Jordan and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin both fared well following navicular fractures. But unfortunately for Embiid, the precedent set by big men to suffer the injury doesn’t inspire much confidence. In three of the seven navicular cases (including for perimeter and post players), the fracture reoccurred or additional surgery was needed. All three players (Curtis Borchardt, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Yao Ming) stood 7 feet or taller. There’s another seven-footer, too, whose prognosis we’re not sure of yet: Brendan Haywood suffered a navicular fracture in October 2013 and didn’t play a minute this year for Charlotte. We’ll have to wait to see how his foot holds up.
Small sample size, of course, but it begins to tell us what teams might be able to expect from Embiid. And there are always outliers. The careers of Kevin McHale (who played too long ago to be included in my database) and Ilgauskas provide some optimism. McHale bounced back following his injury in the 1987 postseason and played seven more seasons, including four at an All-Star level. Ilgauskas also went on to have a productive career.
Then again, that only happened after his third foot surgery, a procedure that involved reshaping multiple bones in his foot.