Joel Embiid's back injury could determine Kansas' title hopes -- and everyone else's, too
The epicenter of the NCAA tournament, as of Monday, may have been a back specialist's office in Los Angeles.
There, Kansas center Joel Embiid received second opinions on issues that sidelined him for the final two games of the regular season. The parameters for what the 7-foot freshman can or can't do in the Big 12 tournament would be established. The specifics of how to manage the injury during tight turnarounds would be revealed. And one prognosis would determine another: Whether or not the Jayhawks can be a legitimate national title contender this March.
“I really believe -- and of course I'm biased -- when he's healthy and playing well he has the potential to impact the game on both ends as much as anybody in the country,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of Embiid on the Big 12 teleconference Monday.
When Self spoke, he did not have the results of Embiid's tests and exams handy. He did say that Embiid was “tons better than he was” and had been running in the pool before heading to the West Coast. While the Jayhawks could be without the conference defensive player of the year for the Big 12 tournament, Self said he did not anticipate a scenario in which Embiid would miss any NCAA tournament action the following week.
“This week is important, but it pales in comparison to the importance of what happens after this week,” Self said. “We want him as healthy as possible for the NCAA tournament. We want him as close to 100 percent as possible for that.”
The Jayhawks, of course, grew up and recovered from a grueling non-conference slate featuring losses to Villanova, Colorado, Florida and San Diego State to post a 14-4 conference record and win the Big 12 by two games. Embiid matured into a force, averaging 11.2 points on 62.6 percent shooting while adding 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. How much Kansas changes in his absence – or even with severe limitations to his playing time – might swing the balance of the entire NCAA tournament.
Indeed, how much Joel Embiid do the Jayhawks need to win a title?
Shortcomings defensively may become another matter. Embiid's 72 blocks represent 40.2 percent of Kansas' season total. No one else on the roster can protect the rim as effectively. Forget about the small sample size of the three games Embiid missed entirely this season – even when his minutes were curtailed significantly, the effect on the Jayhawks' interior defense appeared pronounced.
Embiid played 20-plus minutes in 17 regular-season games. In those games, opponents shot 41.9 percent (288 for 687) on two-point attempts. He played 20 or fewer minutes on 14 occasions. In those games, opponents shot 46.6 percent (235 for 504) on two-point attempts.
It's a notable enough difference when considering the increasingly small margin for error Kansas will have as it makes its way through the NCAA tournament brackets. “When you have a guy like Tarik Black who can come off the bench, when you've got a guy like Perry Ellis, I just think they're so solid and so strong,” said TCU coach Trent Johnson, whose team played Kansas with and without Embiid. “But obviously the big fella makes a big difference in having a chance to win it all. They need to have him in the stretch.”
Specific matchups could help the Jayhawks somewhat. West Virginia dropped 92 points on Embiid-less Kansas on Saturday. The Mountaineers scored 25 points in the paint and shot 51.4 percent on two-point attempts. But coach Bob Huggins believed his team's perimeter-oriented attack mitigated Embiid as a factor in preparation. It almost didn't matter if it was a Jayhawks team with him or without him.
“Because we don't even throw the ball inside, it's not as big an adjustment I don't think as maybe for other people,” Huggins said Monday. “(Embiid) blocks or changes everything in the lane. It gives Juwan Staten a little easier run at the rim, although they still have great size. We just shoot so many threes and so many jump shots – it still affects us, don't get me wrong, but I don't know it affects us as much as people who throw the ball inside.”
So should Kansas encounter similarly perimeter-oriented opponents in the NCAA bracket, it may represent a lucky draw. Self can't simulate the Embiid effect with anyone else on the roster. But the Jayhawks coach can, in theory, get his guards and wings to defend more diligently while knowing a 7-foot shot eraser isn't there to account for mistakes. That may defuse perimeter penetration, and that may help compensate for Embiid's absence or limitations.
But these are all questions only an examination in California and the subsequent game plan by Kansas will answer, and maybe not until the end of this week.. How Embiid would respond to one day between games (as he would in the NCAAs) or no days between games (as he would in the conference tournament), was a mystery to Self as of Monday.
“I'm trying to get medical expert opinions on if we play him on Thursday, does that mean he can even play on Friday?” Self said. “What about if we cut his minutes back and limit him to so many minutes a game? We're thinking about all that. But the big thing is having him for the following week (for the NCAA tournament). We'll play it by ear to see what happens. But I don't anticipate it being a situation where we won't have him the following week.”
Kansas should have its 7-foot defensive dervish, sure, but just what Embiid has in the tank for Kansas is a separate issue. Maybe no one player will have as much impact on the NCAA tournament field as a whole. The Jayhawks are as formidable as anyone in the nation with Embiid at full capacity. If he can offer only something less, the team and its title chances are diminished. The spine of a championship contender was getting his back checked Monday, and it wasn't just Kansas anxious to see what comes next.