PHILADELPHIA — As word spread through NBA inner circles that Kansas prospect Joel Embiid suffered a foot injury, the Philadelphia 76ers wondered if his misfortune was just the break the downtrodden franchise needed.
“I sniffed opportunity,” Sam Hinkie, the team’s president and general manager, said Friday. “The moment he got hurt, we thought we might get him. We might be just the organization with just the set of owners, and we might be the one to do it.”
When the 7-foot center was available at three, the Sixers pounced, even though he could miss up to a full season because of a broken foot.
The 76ers are used to big men sitting out the season. Former All-Star center Andrew Bynum never played a second because of bad knees in 2012-13. And rookie Nerlens Noel sat out all of last season because of a torn ACL.
Noel, the No. 6 overall pick out of Kentucky, was antsy to play toward the end of a 19-63 season. The Sixers refused to rush him, not wanting to risk additional injury in what was always planned as a lost — or, tanked — season. Embiid recovery from a stress fracture in his right foot could take five to eight months. So will the Sixers play him in another season where the Sixers are building again toward a high lottery pick instead of a postseason berth?
“Guess what our approach will be,” Hinkie said, smiling. “We’ll focus on the long-term health of the player.”
Embiid won’t be Philadelphia’s only lottery pick sitting out next season.
Croatian forward Dario Saric, the 10th overall pick, signed a three-year deal last week to play in Turkey. The Sixers hold the rights to the 6-foot-10, 230-pounder for the next three years, and it could be that long until he plays for Philly.
By the time he’s set to join the Sixers, the organization hoped a playoff berth would be within reach.
Hinkie said the Noel-Embiid frontcourt will be a “menace” at the rim. Coach Brett Brown was already drawing up plays for the duo — X’s and O’s he’ll have plenty of time to perfect.
Hinkie credited Philly fans for their “patience and understanding” for another lean season where the best outcome would be a No. 1 draft pick and not a seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Outside of rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams and veteran forward Thaddeus Young, the Sixers have few other credible players, and will likely stack the roster again with D-League castoffs and 10-day contract stopgaps.
“It’s not even close to demoralizing,” Brown said.
Brown tried his best at an optimistic spin on the seasons ahead.
Knowing the security of three more years left on his contract makes it easier to wait for a project like Embiid.
The versatile 7-foot Embiid had a fantastic freshman season with the Jayhawks, averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds while blocking 72 shots to earn Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.
Embiid, who grew up playing soccer and volleyball, only decided to pursue basketball a few years ago. He started to blossom as a senior at The Rock School and ultimately chose to attend Kansas, where he arrived with less fanfare than fellow freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden.
Embiid hurt his back while landing awkwardly during a game late in the season, and missed the Jayhawks’ final two regular-season games and the Big 12 tournament. He also missed a victory over Eastern Kentucky and a season-ending loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, after which he said that he would have been able to play had Kansas advanced to the second weekend.
Hinkie said the Sixers consulted various doctors and felt confident there was little long-term risk to his health once the foot healed. Embiid was projected as Cleveland’s No. 1 overall pick before the draft. The honor went to Wiggins.
“In this scenario, and only this scenario, does he fall to three,” Hinkie said. “If he can remain healthy, he can have a fantastic, fantastic NBA career.”