Joel Embiid Is Following the Same Career Path as Hall of Fame Center Bill Walton

For the third time in four postseasons, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid will miss at least one game due to injury. Embiid will not play in Game 5 of Philadelphia’s series with the Washington Wizards with a torn meniscus in his right knee. His status is unknown beyond Game 5. But it’s another health-related speed bump in a career that has been replete with them. It’s not unfair to compare Embiid with another massively talented but immensely fragile big man, Hall of Famer Bill Walton.

Since being drafted third overall in 2014, Embiid has missed two full seasons due to injury. He has never missed less than 18 games in any of the five seasons he’s been in uniform. Similarly, Walton missed four full seasons over an NBA career that spanned from 1974–1988.

The ratio of seasons during which Walton played and those he missed is eerily identical to Embiid. Each spent five seasons on the court for every two off it.

Bill Walton and Joel Embiid even share collegiate injury histories

Bill Walton starred at UCLA in the 1970s; Joel Embiid was a standout at Kansas during his lone season there in 2013-14
Bill Walton (L) and Joel Embiid each battled back injuries while still playing at the collegiate level. | UCLA/Collegiate Images via Getty Images | Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMU/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As a senior at UCLA in the 1973–74 season, Bill Walton sat out three games with a spinal fracture. UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak ended that season, as was the Bruins’ string of seven straight NCAA championships.  Joel Embiid missed the end of his lone season at Kansas with a stress fracture in his lower back.

Despite the injury concerns, Walton was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. In his healthiest season in Portland, Walton missed 17 games in 1976–77. He was still able to lead the Blazers to their only NBA title that season, however. Even though Walton missed 24 games the following season, he was named NBA MVP. But Portland floundered without its big man.

The Blazers were 50–8 before Walton’s injury and were threatening the record of 69 wins in a season. (That record, set by the Los Angeles Lakers, has been passed twice since.) But Portland went only 8–16 after the injury. Walton tried painkilling injections in his injured foot to return for the playoffs. But he lasted only two games, and Portland was upset in the conference semifinals.

Embiid had trouble getting his career off the ground

Joel Embiid was one of the top prospects in the 2014 draft class despite his injury woes at Kansas. But he reported pain in his foot during a pre-draft workout. Embiid was diagnosed with a broken navicular bone in his right foot. Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie selected Embiid anyway, and the youngster sat out the entire 2014–15 season.

Embiid broke the same bone while rehabilitating from the first surgery to repair it and was also out for 2015–16. He proved to be as good as advertised when he finally took the court in 2016–17. Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He played just 25.4 minutes a game and had an injury-maintenance schedule that prohibited him from playing back-to-back games. Even with the precautions, a knee injury took him out after he played only 31 games.

He’s been an All-Star each of the last four seasons and has twice been on an All-NBA team. That is despite missing 19, 18, 22, and 21 games, respectively, over that span. Embiid also had a delayed playoff debut. He missed the first two games of the first-round in 2018 with a fractured orbital in his left eye. He also sat out one game during the first round in 2019 with knee tendinitis.

Are Joel Embiid and Bill Walton connected across time?

Joel Embiid and Bill Walton, talented-but-brittle bigs from different generations
Joel Embiid (L) is a dominant scorer and defender for the Philadelphia 76ers; Bill Walton might have been the best passing center in NBA history pre-Nikola Jokic. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Bill Walton was one of the most celebrated college basketball players ever. He won the Naismith Trophy as the top player in America in each of his three varsity seasons at UCLA. (First-year students were not eligible to play when Walton enrolled in 1970.) The Bruins were 88–2 while he was there, winning two national titles. As a senior, Walton’s gang lost to eventual champion NC State in the 1974 national semifinals.

His fragile feet and ankles shortened his career dramatically; of a possible 1,148 regular-season games over 14 seasons, Walton appeared in just 468. That’s not a misprint; Walton missed 680 games. He also sat out 16 of 65 playoff games during the seasons he was able to play at all.

Because of his oft-injured legs, Embiid has appeared in 260 of a possible 555 career games during the regular season. Like Walton, he has been unable to play more often than he has taken the court.

Could it be that Joel Embiid will go down as the tragically talented Bill Walton for a new generation?

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and SRCBB.

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