In three seasons since being drafted out of Kansas, Sixers center Joel Embiid has missed 187 out of a possible 218 NBA games.
He’s had a pair of surgeries to his foot, and is currently out until at least after the All-Star break with a slightly torn meniscus in his right leg.
Called an “NBA Unicorn” by pundits like Bill Simmons, Embiid’s case is unlike any seen in the NBA prior. His stats, over a short sample of 31 games, suggest that when he’s permitted to play he is one of the best defensive and offensive centers in the entire NBA — right now, as a rookie.
And once he’s surrounded by Ben Simmons and a contending basketball team, who knows what he’ll look like? Bombing threes, swatting shots left and right, playing perimeter defense and posting up like Hakeem Olajuwon are just a handful of the 22-year-old’s skill sets.
But has there ever been a superstar so young who was limited so much?
The closest comparison is Bill Walton, who was a star at UCLA and drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1974. Over four injury-rattled seasons, Walton played in 201 games (50 per season), averaged 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game and just over 33 minutes per contest.
Embiid is averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game through 31 games and just over 25 minutes per game.
Walton won an NBA title in 1976-77 with Portland and another 10 years later as a sixth man in Boston. Embiid projects to being a much more productive and game-changing force. But can he be if he continues to sit games out for “maintenance days,” for minor knee injuries and as a precaution due to his prior history with injuries?
The latest ailment for Embiid, which was originally diagnosed as a bone bruise, will cost NBA fans the chance to see him in the Rookie Challenge and Skills Competition at NBA All-Star weekend. But, as GM Bryan Colangelo says, in the future this injury could be less of an issue.
“A lot of players play with minor tears,” Colangelo said. “Once again, the injury is thought to be mostly about the bone bruise and that’s what he’s being treated for. The tear does not seem to be the source of the pain, the symptoms at this stage and he’s moving forward accordingly via the things he’s doing on the court.”
Also according to Colangelo, via Philly.com: “Since the tear is not believed to be acute, the injury ‘likely or could have been pre-existing.’Embiid is being treated for the bone bruise, Colangelo said.”
Which implies there will be no shortage of minor injuries in the future.
Would the overly precautious Sixers allowtheir star to fight his way through pain and injuries like so many other NBA players do? Will he be able to learn to play with pain if he’s held back so often from doing so?
The body of evidence thus far — albeita small sample size — suggests that getting Embiid through 60 games a year would be an optimistic expectation.
Is that enough to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Philadelphia?