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June 12, 2019

NBA Draft 2019: Should Sixers consider any players with injury concerns?

It has basically turned into a running joke at this point. You watch a promising young player go through his amateur career, keep observing as he draws attention from a variety of NBA teams, and then he goes down with a serious injury, prompting quips from the most uncreative people among us.

"He would be perfect for the Sixers!"

The point of the Sixers' rebuild was certainly not to stock the cupboard with injured players, but somehow and some way, even the healthy players they've selected in recent years have been derailed by freak occurrences early in their careers. From Ben Simmons to Markelle Fultz to Zhaire Smith, we saw everything from foot injuries to food allergies get players off track.

But there was a time when the Sixers intentionally chose players who came to the league with medical red flags. While other teams were scared of the uncertainty presented by the injuries, the Sixers were trying to hit home runs in order to find the next foundational Sixers star. It only took one selection, Joel Embiid at No. 3 in 2014, for that to be a worthwhile exercise. The concerns have persisted, but the talent has been enough to justify it and then some.

The question now is whether that risk is still worth taking, should the opportunity present itself.

Philadelphia is in a very different place now than they were in 2014. They need players to flank stars like Embiid, not necessarily guys who are going to lead the program by themselves. Selecting anyone who may miss time (or even the season) in 2019-20 will test their depth, force stars into bigger minute shares early in the season, and potentially have ramifications when the games really matter in the postseason.

The counter-argument is this — if you eliminate every player from your board that you'd have to wait for, you might be passing up on upside that otherwise is unattainable in the range you're drafting in. The Sixers are selecting in places where you're not guaranteed to get an NBA player, let alone a legitimate, long-term contributor, and if you can obtain players with skills that other prospects simply can't offer, waiting for that is better than rushing to select a guy who doesn't have what it takes to make it in the league.

It seems like the Sixers are probably not going to draft anyone they think won't be able to play and help them out right away. While members of the front office have said publicly that age won't be a determining factor, they have also said they're looking for players with mature games who can help them out right away. It's hard to help right away when you're still going through rehab.

Still, there are a couple of players in this class who could be available for Philly in the second round, and I believe they're worth considering.

Chuma Okeke — Auburn

Every NBA team is looking for players who fit the "three-and-D" archetype these days. If James Ennis' impact on the team down the stretch is any indication, one or two more of those players would make an enormous difference for the Sixers.

Okeke fits the mold of a complementary player who can do the little things to help Philadelphia's star players. Across two seasons at Auburn, he knocked down almost 39 percent of his threes, and he was more than just a stationary shooter in college. His cutting instincts are strong, and though Okeke lacks the top-end athleticism that would help him finish over length at the next level, his craft has proven to be pretty good — he shot 70.7 percent at the rim as a sophomore on almost double the attempts of his freshman season.

Defensively, there are some similarities between Okeke and former Sixers wing Robert Covington. His off-ball instincts are excellent, his hands are quick, and he's great at anticipating where a pass or a player might go before they get there. Combine that with a desire to do the dirty work, and you have the sort of player who would fit on pretty much any team and any lineup in the NBA.

On the ball, there are more areas of concern, and he lacks the quick-twitch athleticism that defines some of the league's best individual defenders. But he makes up for some of that by timing his gambles well and creating turnovers.

Okeke was Auburn's best player in their upset victory over North Carolina in this year's NCAA Tournament, and after he went down late in that game with a torn ACL, his teammates dedicated their tournament performance to their injured teammate, advancing all the way to the Final Four. The way he plays is infectious, and it would be no surprise if that carried over to the next level.

The torn ACL he suffered in March would at the very least push back the start date of his career, and Okeke suffered a bone bruise in the same knee back in 2017 when he was trying out for Team USA's U-19 team. ACL issues are not as devastating as they used to be thanks to advancements in the medical field, but because Okeke's athleticism is already a concern coming in, anything that would diminish him there has to be monitored.

Everyone's recovery timetable is different, but in a sport where there is abundant cutting and exploding off of your knee, Okeke would probably be looking at something like a December return in a best-case scenario. No one's health is guaranteed moving forward, but on a team that needs to focus on building chemistry and continuity right out of the gate, using a roster spot on an injured wing would put them in the hole to start the year.

But compared against a lot of players coming into the league with "three-and-D" labels, Okeke is one of the few who actually lives up to both of those responsibilities. That alone should keep him in the minds of Philly's brain trust.

Jontay Porter — Missouri

The less heralded of the Porter brothers who came to Missouri in 2017, Jontay Porter was nevertheless the more important Porter brother when they were on the same college team. While his brother spent most of their freshman season together injured and unable to help, Jontay was showing the sort of skills that might make him a useful NBA player.

During the only season he actually played at Mizzou, Porter showed almost every tool you want to see in the toolbox of a modern big man. He comfortably and confidently hit threes (36.4 percent on 3.3 attempts per game), he flashed great vision as a face-up player and in the post, set good screens, and was capable of attacking closeouts with his handle when teams respected his shot from deep.

It is harder to find all those traits in one backup big man than you might think, and on a star-studded team, having a big man who fits in the intelligent, ball-moving mold would do wonders for their second-unit offense. Putting a big man on the floor who can do nothing aside from space the floor would still open up lanes for guys like Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, and Porter can do a lot more than that.

Defensively, there's more projecting that needs to be done, but you can draw a line between Porter's passing vision and his understanding of where to be on defense. What he doesn't have in explosiveness he often made up for in positional sense, and his rotations often saved Missouri from giving up points at the rim. He's not going to be a prolific shot blocker, but he will be in the right place.

But here's where the injury history comes in. Porter tore the ACL in his right knee twice in five months, with the second coming late this March after he missed all of his sophomore campaign. 

He told the Kansas City Star the second tear was the result of an "idiotic mistake" to push himself into game action too soon, though there is a bit of a troubling family history on the health front that is worth considering. Michael Porter Jr. missed most of his freshman season and all of his first NBA season due to back issues, and Porter's sister Bri, a former Missouri women's basketball player, tore an ACL on five separate occasions.

Even if we throw that out, Porter was not in a position where he could afford to lose much, if any athleticism moving to the NBA level. His lateral movement and explosiveness already wasn't great pre-injury, and the jury is out on whether he'll be caught between positions at the next level. He doesn't have the strength you'd want from a center, and he probably doesn't have the quickness to make it as a four.

But Porter is far enough down most draft boards that I think he's the guy who is much easier to take a risk on if you're the Sixers, who have four different picks to make in the second round. We're talking about a guy who was getting projected as a top-20 talent in a deeper class last season, and he possesses a much greater basketball intellect than most players show at his age.

If the Sixers go big with an earlier pick, that probably rules Porter out. But if they haven't addressed backup center by the time they're up at 42, they could do a hell of a lot worse than Porter, injuries and all.

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