Seven-foot Kansas center Joel Embiid slides down the NBA Draft projections. First, a back injury. Now, foot surgery.
Embiid apparently won’t go first to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night or second to the Milwaukee Bucks, and now stately franchises like the Celtics at No. 6 and the Lakers at No. 7 have hopes they could be in the Embiid derby.
But it would be a mistake to let Embiid fall that far. A risk, no doubt. But also a mistake.
Embiid offers promise of dominance at one of the NBA’s most important, and hard-to-find, positions. And I’m not talking about center.
Rim protector. And yes, that’s a position. Much more of a real position than something as undescriptive as center.
The NBA has changed over the decades. No longer are certain athletes pigeon-holed into certain roles. High-flying athletes once were wingmen like Dr. J and Michael Jordan. Now they are point guards, like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. Tall and skilled players once were stationed with their backs to the basket like Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, even if they were on the same team. Now they play all over the floor, like Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki.
Most every team has a center, but those centers do vastly different things.
Most every team has a point guard, but those point guards to vastly different things.
Here are some of the real positions in the NBA. Penetrator. Shooter. Perimeter defender. Rim Protector. Low-block scorer.
Marc Gasol is Memphis’ center. But Zach Randolph is the Grizzlies’ low-post scorer.
Mario Chalmers was Miami’s point guard. But LeBron (or Dwyane Wade) was the Heat’s penetrator.
Kawhi Leonard and LeBron are forwards, by any traditional definition. But that doesn’t mean they have to guard Durant during a Thunder showdown. If circumstances demand, and they have, they switch over to Westbrook. Heck, mighty mite Chris Paul won a game for the Clippers in their playoff season against OKC, with bothersome defense on Durant, who is 10 inches taller.
Traditional positions are passe’. Size-based assignments are out. Skill-based assignments are in. And rim protector ranks among the most important jobs in the NBA.
We saw that with the Thunder, in the two games Serge Ibaka sat out against the Spurs. The Thunder was virtually defenseless. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili could drive the lane with the confidence their shot wouldn’t be sent back into their teeth. Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw could maneuver in the lane knowing their bank shots would find the square and not Ibaka’s massive palm.
Then Ibaka returned and, presto! The Thunder defense was back.
Rim protection makes a huge difference to a defense. Maybe only the Clippers (DeAndre Jordan) have an Ibaka, but most elite teams have it in some form or another. Duncan and Tiago Splitter are solid. The Heat’s Birdman. The Pacers’ Roy Hibbert. The Bulls’ Joakim Noah. The Rockets’ Dwight Howard. The Warriors’ Andrew Bogut.
An underappreciated part of the Mavericks’ 2011 NBA title was Tyson Chandler policing the air space around the basket. The ’09-’10 Lakers had Andrew Bynum. The ’08 Celtics had Kevin Garnett and a springier Kendrick Perkins.
Rim protectors do more than block shots. They alter shots. They keep easy shots from being launched. In the same way that some shutdown NFL cornerbacks rarely get tested, players like Ibaka and Jordan and Noah sometimes don’t get much action, because opponents figure it’s easier to toss up a 15-foot jumper than risk getting the ball through a rim protector’s windmill.
Which brings us back to Embiid.
A 7-footer with a bad back and recent foot surgery will make scouts go screaming into the hills. Sam Bowie, Bill Walton, Greg Oden — the Trail Blazers alone have a sordid history of bad-footed big men who broke Portland’s hearts.
So Joel Embiid is absolute risk/reward. A huge risk. But a massive reward.
Embiid could be sidelined four to six months after foot surgery Friday. Heck, he might miss his entire rookie season, as the 76ers’ Nerlens Noel, another purported rim protector, did with the 76ers last season. Who knows if Embiid will ever be the same again?
But teams that employ a rim protector have one of the necessities of success. Draft someone else at 3-4-5-6-7, and you’ll get a good player. Might even get a great player. And if you don’t have a rim protector, you’ll be in the market for one, knowing that without that position, NBA greatness is limited.
I can’t see Embiid falling far.