Considering the dearth of talent that has taken the court for the Philadelphia 76ers for the past decade, to complain about having a top-three pick in the 2014 Draft is about as dumfounded as one could imagine. Barring a momentary lapse of sanity from general manager Sam Hinkie, which is of course impossible as he is a robot, the 76ers will probably collect their most talented draft pick since Allen Iverson, and that includes Michael Carter-Williams. What the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks do with the first and second picks of the draft are meaningless when it comes to Hinkie’s yearlong plan to bring in an elite talent with a high draft pick.
A perplexing possibility did present itself, however, when the 76ers were slotted with the 3rd overall pick in the draft. Depending on how the top-two shake out, Philadelphia could find themselves in a position where, if they wish to take the most talented player, they may have to select one who plays a position that is not a priority for the 76ers. For all of their holes along the roster, it seems almost cruel that two of the draft’s top prospects happen to play the same roles as the team’s young cornerstone players. Despite some noticeable differences to their games, Dante Exum and Joel Embiid are about as close to carbon copies of Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel from a physical standpoint as any two players in the draft. They also both happen to be extraordinary talents with the potential to take on a franchise cornerstone role for whichever team ends up selecting them.
Though the lottery and preparation for the draft leaves so much uncertainty, the ‘plan’ for the 76ers was to be able to bring in one of the two wing players who currently sit at the top of the class. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker, for entirely different reasons, should find themselves in a position to serve as the face of the franchise for the team that ends up taking them. One has to expect speculation over the intentions of the two teams selecting ahead of the 76ers for the next few weeks, but it would come as no surprise if they decided to take the two top wing players before the 76ers can even mull over the decision. Though one would not necessarily call this a colossal disappointment, it is a situation that will put Hinkie in a situation where he must make another major decision. Would Hinkie sacrifice talent for need? A practice that is widely panned among all sports as a losing formula. Or would he opt to select one of the two most talented remaining players?
Dante Exum, the long, athletic playmaker out of Australia is widely considered to be the top guard in the 2014 class. Despite being considered a relative unknown, Exum has made the most of what limited exposure he has been allotted and has climbed up draft boards accordingly. He has a history with 76ers coach Brett Brown and some feel he has as much ‘superstar’ potential as any player in the class. Or perhaps Hinkie would shift his consideration toward Joel Embiid. Prior to a late-season lower back flare-up, Embiid had stormed past his teammate Wiggins as the consensus top player in the draft. His effortless athleticism, premiere shot-blocking, and tantalizing frame brought upon Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons. Were it not for lingering concerns over Embiid’s injury and a lengthy manuscript of horror stories brought on by drafting big men toward the top of the draft, one would have had to pencil in the Kansas big man from Cameroon to Cleveland already. Such is fate, though; Cleveland cannot afford another miss on their 3rd 1st overall pick in four seasons. It is almost a guarantee that one of the aforementioned players will be available to Hinkie and the 76ers at their 3rd overall selection. There is also a strong possibility that both of them are not only available, but the clear-cut most talented prospect for the 3rd overall pick. Should they decide to pull the trigger on one of them, it is an interesting argument as to which player could end up yielding a better result in Philadelphia.
CASE FOR EXUM
As mentioned before, Dante Exum has been working at a disadvantage since he became a legitimate top prospect in the 2014 class. He has only played against high-end competition on a few occasions, lives almost a world away in Australia, and is up against one of the most impressive crop of draft prospects in years. By that same accord, Exum’s mystery makes him an extremely intriguing prospect and there are teams who may fall in love with what they see. It’s tough to peg down glaring weaknesses in his game, mostly due to the fact that he constantly dominates the inferior competition he is up against. Exum dominated the ball on the international level, but did magnificent things with it more often than not.
Much like Carter-Williams, Exum possesses uncanny measureables to go along with some troubling weaknesses. Despite appearing on the slight side, the 18-year old actually grades out favorably when it comes to height and weight. At 6’6″ with shoes and pushing 200 pounds, not to mention a frame that suggests further development, Exum looks like the physicality of the NBA won’t hinder him too much after some seasoning. Of the footage made available of the Australian product, Exum shows an effortless ability to get to the rim and creativity and court vision in the passing game that goes well beyond his years. Much like MCW, Exum’s jump shot could use a substantial re-tool. With his height and length, Exum ideally would feast in the mid-range game and possibly develop a post game down the way that could make him nearly unguardable.
By his own mouth, Exum projects himself a point guard at the next level. The confident young man acknowledges the benefits of having multiple ball-handlers on the court at once, but for the time being appears to have his heart and mindset on being an NBA point guard.
“I see myself as a point guard. I’ve always been in the point-guard position. That’s where I feel more comfortable. I think that’s where I’m inching myself into the draft as. That’s where I see myself playing.”
It is the confidence and bravado with which Exum carries himself that has some placing extremely lofty expectations on the young man. ESPN’s pre-eminent international hoops reporter and scout had an especially tantalizing comparison worth noting.
“He has got instincts for the game that belie his age. While I don’t want to compare him to Michael Jordan — that’s totally unfair, we are talking about maybe the greatest player to ever play the game – at the same age he has got the body type and some of the instincts that Michael possessed.”
When it comes to the international game, Fraschilla is about as good as they get. He even acknowledges the relative ridiculousness of the comparison, but to even have Jordan’s name brought up in comparisons has to be worth something. I might prefer the Penny Hardaway projections at this point with a bit more longevity and a higher ceiling to go with it. Nevertheless, Exum has pulled ahead of Marcus Smart as the top guard in the class and will most likely go off the board in the top five.
CASE FOR EMBIID
An abbreviated argument for Embiid would be that, almost universally, Embiid is considered the premiere player in this draft. Were it not for his injury situation, the 76ers probably would not even be able to consider the 7’0″ falling to the 3rd pick and would most likely be planning accordingly. Yet, the lower back situation of the Kansas big-man has to be giving the notoriously unfortunate Cavaliers a heavy dose of cold feet and, thus, the 76ers have to consider the possibility. The past three drafts have produced some of the most impressive collegiate shot-blocking presences in decades in the form of: Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, and now Embiid. If Philadelphia decided to go in this direction, they would have two of the three and perhaps the most imposing projected front line since the early assembly of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. The difference with the 76ers compared to the Spurs is that they could potentially have a decade’s worth of the imposing tandem, compared to just a handful of years.
If one were to possibly consider the shortcomings a wash with Exum and Embiid (Exum’s lack of experience in high-end organized basketball and Embiid’s injury situation), Embiid would be the clear choice in my opinion. That said, with Brett Brown’s expertise in player development, history with the prospect, and how often big men’s careers have been derailed by injuries; it is impossible to do so. Embiid did conduct a workout in front of scouts from the top teams and independents alike on Friday. Despite apparently losing some steam by the end of it, all returns seemed to be positive and a huge checkmark as Embiid tries to convince teams his injuries will not be an issue.
Watching Joel Embiid in workout for league executives in Santa Monica. Impossible to imagine passing on him at No. 1.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 23, 2014
Even if you are new to following NBA media, when Wojnarowski says something: listen. The obvious issue with bringing Embiid into the fold is the potential logjam at the ‘center’ position with Nerlens Noel. Now that all systems are go for the 2013 6th overall pick, Noel is expected to serve as the team’s primary rim-protector and defensive presence along their front line. With both players on the lanky side, though Embiid is reportedly up to 265 pounds, neither is the type of bruising presence that Marc Gasol or even Tyson Chandler. Despite the relative physical similarities, they play a decidedly different defensive game in my opinion.
Should both return to full health, I would say Noel is the better all-around defender than Embiid. He is quicker off his feat, gets into passing lanes at an alarming rate, and sometimes looks like a guard with how low of a defensive stance he plays in. While it sometimes seemed like blocks just happened to gravitate towards Embiid, Noel had a knack for erasing plays that almost assuredly would have been a basket against another defender. Even on the play where he was injured, Noel managed to chase down his opponent all the way down the court and were it not for the divide between the court and the stadium floor, it may have been a different story at the draft for the Kentucky product.
On the offensive end is where Embiid shines. Kansas was often at its best when they could run the offense through Embiid and allow the opposition to collapse on him. Embiid’s ability to both play above the rim, something that Noel excelled at, and in the halfcourt is what coaches and scouts salivate over. He demonstrates a beautiful stroke on his jump-shot and free throws and despite picking up basketball in 2011, has a very natural presence with the ball. Embiid steps with authority, has deft touch around the rim, and a solid repertoire of post moves that allowed him to dominate Big 12 competition at times. His execution of the famed ‘Dream Shake’ on a few occasions made the Olajuwon comparisons impossible to avoid.
I don’t care how much Noel has worked with Brett Brown; he cannot do that. Embiid is everything you want on the offensive end from a center, especially in today’s game that is pushing toward the perimeter. He showed an ability to knock down shots from 18 feet to the edge of three-point range. He can pass, he handles well for a big man, and makes decisive cuts and attacks the rim.
When it is all said and done, I expect the Cavaliers to take Embiid first overall if they do not trade the pick. As is the case with Exum, I would opt for the superior talent over need at the 3rd overall pick and that is exactly what Embiid is.
If a team is drafting a player at a position that they are already somewhat established in, one cannot go wrong taking perhaps the top talent in the draft. I struggle to imagine a scenario that Carter-Williams and the bold Exum are able to constantly work in harmony after seeing the spotty results of the MCW-Tony Wroten experiment. Noel is a world-class teammate from all indications and played alongside similar talent in his one year at Kentucky. I also feel that Embiid’s and Noel’s deficiencies and strengths complement one another while Carter-Williams and Exum might amplify the shortcomings of one another. Even taking into account the Brett Brown factor and his experience with a player as intriguing and talented as Exum, a full-strength Embiid on a clean bill of health is too good to pass up. This rebuilding process is about acquiring as much top-end talent as possible and trusting the coaching and analytical staff to find a way to make it work. Maybe it is just me, but I cannot look at the tandem of Noel and Embiid as a cause for concern. Remember how we all reacted when we thought Noel would be playing alongside Anthony Davis? Imagine that with a perimeter defender the caliber of Carter-Williams slowing things down in the frontcourt and the miserable defensive performances that became the norm of 2013-2014 will be but a distant memory if Embiid ends up in Philadelphia.