At one time, the NBA was a league dominated by skilled seven footers. Every GM was searching for a franchise center, a player whose very presence on the court would make the team better. Boy, have the times changed.
In the modern NBA, the center has become an afterthought. Traditional back-to-the-basket big men are a rarity, replaced by “stretch fours” and floor spacing. However, here the Cleveland Cavaliers sit in 2014 draft with the No. 1 overall pick looking at Kansas freshman Joel Embiid, the best center prospect to come around in years. Joel Embiid is an imposing seven footer with enough bulk and skill to have NBA scouts salivating.
Embiid has drawn comparisons to one of the greatest players to ever play, Hakeem Olajuwon. Both Embiid and Olajuwon are African immigrants, Cameroon and Nigeria respectively. Both didn’t start playing the game of basketball until their mid-teens and previously played soccer. Embiid’s body is almost a mirror image of Olajuwon, with nearly identical measureables (7’0, 250lbs). Joel Embiid certainly looks the part; he could play Olajuwon in a made for TV movie called “The Dream,” but does this mean his on court ability mimics Olajuwon?
Embiid’s freshman season at Kansas was a successful one cut short by injury to his back. Olajuwon’s freshman season at Houston was more of a discovery season for Akeem (the “H” was added to his name in later years). He wasn’t heavily recruited and played collegiately for the Houston Cougars, not quite a perennial powerhouse like the Kansas Jayhawks.
During his sophomore year, Olajuwon and fellow future hall of famer Clyde Drexler formed “Phi Slamma Jamma,” and propelled the Cougars to a loss in the national championship. Joel Embiid also had a very high profile teammate in college, his stiffest competition for the No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Drexler went pro, and Olajuwon decided to stay for his junior season. Olajuwon once again took the Cougars to the national championship, this time losing to a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown team.
Olajuwon returned the favor years later when his Houston Rockets defeated Ewing’s heavily-favored New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. Akeem Olajuwon was one of the greatest players in NCAA Tournament history; he is still the only player to win Player of the Year honors while not winning the championship. In comparison, Embiid never even played in the NCAA Tournament due to his back injury, an injury that could very well determine whether or not the Cleveland Cavaliers make Embiid the first player off the board in a few days.
On the court, the most striking resemblance of Embiid’s game to Olajuwon’s is his ability to protect the rim and knack for blocking shots. In his sophomore and junior seasons, Olajuwon averaged over five blocks per game, nothing short of “video game numbers.” Embiid’s freshman campaign had a healthy average of 2.6 blocks per game. Joel Embiid’s eight-block January performance against fellow NBA prospect Marcus Smart’s Oklahoma State Cowboys is also nothing short of “video game numbers.” Embiid’s shot-blocking ability should serve as his strength in the NBA as he refines other parts of his game.
However, I worry that Embiid’s tenacity as a shot blocker may cause him to be pumpfaked into oblivion in the NBA. He will definitely have to learn to leave his feet only when necessary in the NBA. Worst-case scenario, you know Joel Embiid (when healthy) will protect the rim in the NBA.
Offensively, Embiid shows promise to develop into a reliable scorer in the post. Embiid studied tape of Olajuwon when learning to play and it definitely shows. He has mimicked Olajuwon’s “dream shake” ball fake in games and authoritative put-back dunks. He has very impressive footwork in the post already, and there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t continue to add moves to his repertoire. The best thing for Embiid to do is what other stars around the league have done and actually train with Olajuwon. Olajuwon has become somewhat of a guru for the league, engaging in one-on-one training sessions with guards and big men alike.
The Embiid/Olajuwon comparison is an easy one to make as both players have a striking number of similarities. However, I feel there are two giant red flags in the comparison: the obvious injury concerns and speed.
When watching Embiid footage versus Olajuwon footagem I couldn’t help but notice that it seems like the Embiid footage is being played at .75 speed. Embiid is an incredible athlete for a man of his size, but not as incredible as Olajuwon was. Olajuwon was a big man who moved like a guard, and Embiid simply isn’t that fast. Embiid will have to face the familiar struggles of being a center in an increasingly faster league. Look around the league, any team with a “franchise” center has to go key stretches of the game where due to matchups their guy would be best served on the bench.
For me, these Embiid/Olajuwon comparisons are easy and lazy, much like the selection of University of Buffalo star linebacker Khalil Mack to the Buffalo Bills in a mock draft. It looks and sounds good, but at the end of the day, the Bills traded up in the draft to grab a player that wasn’t him.
A more realistic comparison for Joel Embiid in today’s NBA is Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka. Ibaka is a fierce rim protector, who serves as the third option on a very good Thunder team. Olajuwon averaged over 20 points per game his rookie season in the NBA. I would say there’s a very good chance that Embiid never averages 20 points per game in any season of his career.
Two recently placed screws in Embiid’s stress fractured foot may all but end the hopes of going No. 1 overall. However, this doesn’t mean Joel Embiid is off the Cavaliers draft radar. David Griffin made it known that the Cavaliers would be interested in shopping the top pick, and if Embiid could be had later in the draft this could work out for Cleveland.
Cleveland could move down to No. 3 with Philadelphia or No. 5 with Utah, picking up a marginal talent (Thad Young, Derrick Favors) in the process. If Embiid is the truly the guy Cleveland wants and could be drafted while acquiring new talent it seems like the best-case scenario for Cleveland.
If this were last year’s draft, that would be a great plan for Cleveland. But not in this year’s draft.
Cleveland simply cannot afford to mess up this year’s top pick. This could very well be the best draft class since 2003, and Cleveland miraculously got the first pick. If Cleveland takes Joel Embiid and he spends the majority of his career wearing tailored suits on the bench, the comparisons will shift from Akeem Olajuwon to Greg Oden. This is too big of a risk for Cleveland to take when prospects like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker are also sitting on the board.
The only way Cleveland should trade the No. 1 pick is if it is a part of a series of moves that turn the Cavaliers into instant title contenders; or in layman’s terms if a certain 6’8, 260-pound forward moves back to the greater Cleveland area.