In just a few hours, the narrative changed.
Bill Self began Monday with a “nothing to see here” routine. Joel Embiid, the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year and a critical element in Kansas' Final Four aspirations, would return eventually, he said. The freshman’s weekend trip to California, where he visited a back specialist, was the “plan” for the potential No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft who missed the final two games of the regular season.
On Monday night, the tone changed. In a statement, Self said Embiid will miss this week’s Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo. He also called Embiid a “longshot” to play in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament due to a stress fracture in his back. There’s a chance, however, that Embiid could return if the Jayhawks make a deep run.
But he shouldn’t. Not this week. Not next weekend. Not even if Kansas reaches Dallas.
The potential No. 1 pick should rest and rehab in preparation for the NBA draft.
There are thousands of Kansas fans who’d like to see Embiid return. Kansas might be a Final Four team with him in the lineup, and if he’s not available, well, West Virginia will tell you that the Jayhawks just aren’t the same team. Andrew Wiggins' 41-point effort in Morgantown on Saturday was a breathtaking performance for the young star but still wasn’t enough to beat a West Virginia team that is a longshot to make the NCAA tournament.
Louisville had Gorgui Dieng last season. Kentucky had Anthony Davis in 2012. Florida had Joakim Noah and Al Horford during its back-to-back national title seasons in 2006 and 2007. Emeka Okafor was a defensive force in the middle for Connecticut when the Huskies won the national championship in 2004.
A shot-blocking, shot-altering big man -- Embiid is 19th nationally in block rate (percentage of opponents’ two-point field goal attempts that a player blocks when he’s on the floor), according to Ken Pomeroy data -- is always an asset in the postseason.
According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Kansas’ opponents shot 44.8 percent from the field in the three games that Embiid missed this season, compared to 40.9 percent when he was on the court.
It’s simple -- Kansas isn’t a Final Four squad without Embiid. The Jayhawks might not be the best team at the Big 12 tournament without him. Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas or Oklahoma could leave Kansas City with the title now.
The personnel hit -- enter Tarik Black -- is not the only concern for Kansas, either.
The coming days will be filled with discussions about Kansas and its seed line. Is Kansas a 1-seed without Embiid? What if he doesn’t come back? If Kansas slips in the Big 12 tournament and the Embiid news becomes more ominous, the selection committee might judge the Jayhawks by this week’s performance in Kansas City.
What does the loss of Embiid mean for Kansas?
That’s an important question.
But it’s not as significant as this one: What does this all mean for Embiid?
It’s selfish to put Kansas before Embiid. This is a health issue, one that could affect his quality of life and his professional future.
Embiid’s return would certainly help one entity: Kansas. But it could do more harm to the fragile back of a young man who won’t last long in next summer’s NBA draft if he enters it.
Life isn’t just about money, but this is.
It would be ideal for all parties involved if Kansas advanced in the Big Dance and Embiid got healthy enough to play without risking additional injury.
Self, however, isn’t talking like a coach who believes that scenario is likely. He sounds like someone who is preparing to move forward without the potential All-America center.
Embiid’s back has been bothering him for months. What makes anyone think he’ll miraculously recover in a few weeks? And even if he does, why jeopardize his professional future and seven-figure salary?
Sure, college basketball is about the kids, the game, the purity of competition, the amateurism, the team and the blah, blah, blah, blah. Whatever. When you’re a possible top-three pick, draft positioning has to be considered. And what if the injury lingers? He’d be better off getting paid to rehab in the league (Jared Sullinger, Nerlens Noel) than waiting in Lawrence another season and possibly watching his draft stock take a hit. (See Mitch McGary.)
Embiid is no different than a University of Kansas economics major. He’s in Lawrence to learn, grow and eventually make some money as the result of his collegiate experience.
And there’s no reason to diminish the progress he has made toward attaining that goal.
This means that Wiggins will carry more weight if Embiid doesn’t come back. Black will have to log more minutes. The Jayhawks will need more from Wayne Selden Jr. and Perry Ellis, too. Every player on that roster will accept more responsibility in the final chapter of their season if Embiid can’t help the program in the NCAA tournament.
If college basketball is really centered on the journey of the student-athlete, then Embiid should be allowed to capitalize on his potential by prepping for June and staying off the court.
Stay on the sideline and make your money, Embiid. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But there is something wrong with any push, public or private, to see Embiid play and potentially hinder his future.