Bill Self has coached in games that featured terrific basketball players competing for and against him. Andrew Wiggins, not yet 19, already has played with and against remarkable talents. Still, Kansas University freshman center Joel Embiid does things on the basketball court that fill the two men with wonder.
At this point, Embiid’s moves don’t surprise either Self or Wiggins, but the 7-foot basketball novice from Cameroon does leave both men asking, “How?”
“When you think about gifted with hands and feet and intellect and things like that, I don’t think anything really surprises you, but it does amaze you, watching him make some plays,” Self said. “You could see a guy make a play and you know he’s capable of making it and you say, ‘Did he just do that?’ And he’s one of those guys that once a day he’ll do something like that.”
Embiid has said he never played on a basketball team until he was 16. Most of his athletic youth was spent on volleyball courts and soccer pitches.
“It’s surprising that he can be as good as he is this soon if you don’t know him, but if you watch him every day nothing surprises you,” Self said of Embiid. “The kid can do anything.”
Even Wiggins marvels at the only player in the practice gym who has four inches on him.
“He hasn’t been playing basketball for that long,” Wiggins said. “To do the stuff he’s doing now, that’s amazing.”
But not out of the blue, Wiggins said.
“I could see it (coming) last year when I played his high school and when I played in the Jordan Brand Classic game, I could see it,” Wiggins said. “He has a lot to his game. He has good hands. He can pass. He has a good shot and he has a good feel for the game.”
During multiple games this season, Wiggins has asked Self to let him guard the other team’s en-fuego scorer, but the player said he never asked his coach to allow him to guard Embiid in practice.
“He’s too big for me. Even if I did, it wouldn’t matter,” Wiggins said. “He’s 7-foot. He’s longer than me. He’s stronger than me. And he has a bunch of post moves. He’s so skilled.”
More than just the quickness of his feet and length of his body make Embiid so difficult to guard in the post.
“He just has so many different moves,” reserve post player Landen Lucas said. “And also, his steps are so big he can keep one pivot foot and get from one block to the other.”
That unusual stride also creates such a big area for Embiid to gather rebounds that bounce beyond where inside players battle for position. He’ll be battling underneath and a blink later be taking a rebound near the foul line.
Yet, clearly more than his unusual physical gifts, not the least being his coordination, have accelerated Embiid’s rapid growth as a basketball force.
“He’s smart and he’s a sponge,” Self said. “Now that does not translate to him playing well all the time. Not at all. He’s going to have games where he has six points and four rebounds. And he’ll have games where he gets 20 and 12. And a lot of that is just experience and knowing how to plug himself into the game and things like that.”
Both Wiggins and Embiid have artistry to their shared craft and neither is close to a finished product. The more they play, the higher their ceilings rise.
“He and Andrew can make some plays you just can’t coach, unorthodox,” Self said, noting Embiid actually dunked at Thursday’s practice without jumping. “... When you work with your big guys and you teach them, ‘OK, we want to move over this shoulder, (now) we want to move over this shoulder,’ guys get confidence through repetition. Well, Jo’s moves are never the same. You can teach him this, but he’s going to have a different way to get to it every time. And that’s what makes him so unique, because he’s not robotic at all.”
Just the opposite of robotic, blessed with a dancer’s grace.
“I don’t even think he knows what moves he’s going to do sometimes,” Lucas said of Embiid. “Something comes to him and in the middle of the move and he’ll try it out. He’s not afraid to try something.”
Like all great artists in all fields, very little is outside Embiid’s comfort zone because what makes him most comfortable is expanding his enormous talents. Watching the unconventional, ever-improving games of Embiid and Wiggins makes this an even more entertaining team than Self’s previous 10 at KU, none of which were snoozers.