POSTED: Jan 10, 2014 9:42 AM ET
Joel Embiid with Kansas and USA Junior Select Team teammate Andrew Wiggins at the Nike Hoop Summit.
Joel Embiid grew up in Cameroon, in west Africa, preferring soccer and volleyball. He first played organized basketball at 16, as a high school junior after moving to the United States. Teammates at a Florida prep school initially laughed from one Embiid hoops pratfall to the next.
He is 19 now. He has gone from 6-foot-9 to 7-foot, from comedy routine on the junior varsity to mega-recruit as a high school senior. This season, Embiid has progressed from life as one of the other Kansas freshmen -- walking into Lawrence a few steps behind prodigy Andrew Wiggins -- to something much more. Jayhawks coach Bill Self recently told the Kansas City Star that Embiid is "a young Hakeem Olajuwon."
Most players improve during college. Many catapult from relative obscurity to high in the lottery. But rarely does it happen like this. Embiid could be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft because he really hasn't had much of a basketball past at all.
It's logic as much as breaking down film. If Embiid's instincts are so good after a few seasons, if his footwork is this advanced while still growing into his body, if he is popping out to scouts at Kansas practices, more than most prospects at major programs who have spent years on the AAU circuit, imagine the possibilities.
"A lot of guys who come so late to the game are mechanical," one general manager said. "They don't have a good feel and can be awkward. He's kind of the opposite of that. He knows how to play considering how little time he's had. That's what jumps out about him. How he's advanced when maybe that shouldn't be expected."
Potential is what rules in NBA evaluations, and that's what has scouts worked up about Embiid, despite the fact that he came off the bench in eight of the first 12 games, four players on the team averaged more minutes and he shot just 63.8 percent from the line. While Embiid may statistically have a complementary role at Kansas -- he is averaging 6.9 rebounds in just 21.6 minutes a game -- he is easily the No. 1 center on the draft board and in contention with Kentucky power forward Julius Randle to be the first big man taken June 26.
He may be first overall, too, in what remains a tight race with Wiggins, Randle, Duke's Jabari Parker and possibly Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State. The other candidates have long histories with scouts -- even Wiggins, Randle and Parker as freshmen. Embiid has an ascension that is breaking necks.
"He's a guy with unique physical attributes," said the head of basketball operations for one team. "For a 7-footer, he's got great hands and feet. He moves very well. I think there's little question he will be an elite shot blocker with that length and leaping ability. But his offense is still a work in progress."
His soccer and volleyball backgrounds are evident in the footwork inside and the ability to time his jumps to protect the rim. That overall athleticism has those around him .
"It comes easy to him," Self told Bleacher Report, a comment shared on some level by NBA talent evaluators. "He moves like a 6-footer with his feet. He can move in a way that very few guys in the past have been able to move. There's a skill set there that very few 7-footers have.... He has a natural feel, natural instincts. Of all the guys on our team, he's the most instinctive basketball guy we have."
To say a freshman with little time in the bank is the most instinctive player on the team -- a team that includes several first-round possibilities (Wiggins, Wayne Selden Jr, Perry Ellis) and coaches' sons (Evan Manning, son of Danny, and Tyler Self) -- is staggering. But Embiid probably passed staggering a while ago. If the team that wins the lottery needs a center, and believes Embiid's last few years are nothing compared to the next 10, staggering might just be the start.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.