He has played organized basketball for three years – two in high school and one in college – and now 7-foot Joel Embiid is poised to begin his fourth season in the sport as one of the top draft picks of the NBA.
Embiid grew up playing soccer and volleyball in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, and in 2011, at a summer basketball camp, his potential was spotted by Luc Mbah a Moute, a local who became Embiid's mentor and today plays in the NBA for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Embiid moved to Florida for high school and the rocket ship then fired onward on to the University of Kansas for a single, spectacular and injury-truncated freshman season of hoops where he went from relative unknown to predictions of reaching the No.1 draft pick this June, eclipsing his teammate and close friend Andrew Wiggins.
"I didn't think I would be that good," Embiid said in an interview in Lawrence, Kan., in late February. "I didn't know I was going to improve at this rate."
On Thursday, a report from Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski cited unidentified sources that said Embiid will enter the draft, with a formal announcement soon. Embiid took to Twitter to parry the news, writing: "haven't made a decision yet." It was the same words on Twitter from Mbah a Moute – but the half-denials are no surprise, given that Embiid is still working through an injured back, and that he still has several weeks to make his decision official.
The spectre of injury, a stress fracture, lingers, and it kept Embiid out of the NCAA tournament, in which Kansas was upset in the Round of 32 by Stanford. But in Embiid, basketball experts see a second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, an athletic big man who can become the heart of a franchise for a decade, able to sustain the pounding of the NBA and deliver on offence and defence. Embiid was chosen Big 12 defensive player of the year and on offence his poise, smarts, and skills have widely impressed, basketball savvy that is unusual in a young player with little experience.
A snapshot of his offensive potential is encapsulated in a scene near the end of the first half of a Kansas blowout at home at Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 22 against rival University of Texas. Embiid corrals the ball at his own end and passes to a teammate and moves up court. Embiid gets the ball right back as he's ploughing to the hoop and it was one step, two steps and a monster, arena-shaking dunk.
The NBA draft is about potential, and given how quickly Embiid has risen, his future seems boundless – with the asterisk of a potentially troubled back, and history of big men – hello, Greg Oden – who have been busts.
"I've never had a player that picked up the game of basketball, and all the nuances, faster than Joel," said Kansas video co-ordinator Jeff Forbes. "Joel can do a lot of things you can't teach. He has exceptional timing. On the floor, he clogs everything up. He makes everything harder for the other team."
Wiggins and Embiid could go No.1 and No.2 – and, if not, both are expected to be in the top three, according to various draft projections. Embiid's back has somewhat dinged the NBA's excitement, with it swirling back to Wiggins.
The two young men have become close friends at Kansas and Wiggins is soon expected to officially declare for the draft. A single season at Kansas had been the plan of the player from the Toronto suburb of Vaughan all along. Wiggins has dealt with a searing spotlight for a while, whereas it is all a rush at once for Embiid. He did not speak English when he moved to the U.S. three years ago and turned 20 this month.
"Jo's deal is totally different," said Kansas coach Bill Self in an interview. "The pressures on him are just the opposite of Andrew. Andrew has lived with expectations his whole life from a basketball standpoint, where Jo has never lived with them. So Andrew's had at least a little worldly experience, where Jo's had zero."
Respected for a sharp mind, Embiid learned English at high school, helped by several other Africans who, like Embiid, also spoke French. "If I didn't understand, they would just explain it to me," said Embiid. "It was hard but with the help of those guys it was easy."
On the court, looking at his footwork and instincts, people can't help but credit a boyhood of soccer and volleyball. Embiid is less certain.
"I don't know if it helped – but that's what everybody says."
After the victory against Texas on Feb. 22, Kansas players, as per tradition, signed autographs for fans, who numbered in the hundreds on a Saturday night. Wiggins was last and Embiid waited for his friend at the end of a hallway, past 10 p.m. Wiggins, posing for a picture with a boy, signalled to Embiid, held up a finger – one more. The two prodigies have forged a brotherhood. They hang out, go for fast food, shoot some casual hoops.
"Our relation is so close," Embiid said. "Everything he does, I know, everything I do, he knows."
Should they go No.1 and No.2, the player who goes second will be among the people happiest for the young man who goes first.
Signing obligations complete, Wiggins joined Embiid, and the two exited into the night. They crossed a mostly dark parking lot. A final klatch of fans chased after them. The young men dutifully signed some more, under the eerie white diffuse glow of a light stand, their dorm rooms not far off. A young girl, the sought autograph in hand, skipped away and jumped, pumping her fist.