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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Keegan

Opinion: 7-footer Embiid rare talent among Kansas big men

Kansas center Joel Embiid laughs during warmups before a scrimmage on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at the Horejsi Center.

Kansas center Joel Embiid laughs during warmups before a scrimmage on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at the Horejsi Center.

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It seems a strange thought on a roster that includes Andrew Wiggins, but the player on this year’s Kansas University basketball team with the highest ceiling just might be the guy whose head comes closest to the ceiling.

Joel Embiid, native of the African country of Cameroon, has the least experience playing basketball of anyone in the Kansas program in recent memory, but for reasons that extend beyond his 7-foot stature, he was born to play basketball, the third sport he got around to trying.

I asked Bill Self if there is anything athletically or basketball skill-wise that Embiid is better at than any big man he has coached in his previous 10 years at Kansas.

“He’s got the best feet,” Self answered without hesitation. “When you guys watch Joel play, you’ll say he’s got unbelievable feet. He’s like a 6-footer, the things he can do with his feet.”

Then Self dropped a name that made everyone in the room sit up and lean forward.

“He kind of reminds me a little bit of (Hakeem) Olajuwon early in his career,” Self said. “I’m not saying he’s Olajuwon. I’m not saying that at all. But you know, some similarities when he was real raw when he was young, but always had great feet, light on his feet. I think Joel’s the same way.”

Embiid picked up basketball at the age of 16, long after he had shown his extraordinary grace and speed on soccer pitches and volleyball courts in Yaounde, Cameroon. Initially, Embiid might have more moments where that inexperience shows than early Olajuwon moments, but the mere mention of that name triggers dreams of a very bright future.

“He’s got a long way to go from a strength standpoint and a toughness standpoint to be able to play a ton of minutes his rookie season,” Self cautioned, “but he can do some things and move in a way that very few big guys we’ve had have moved.”

Embiid said that he first picked up a basketball at the age of 12, but until he turned 16 he said the majority of the rare instances he shot at a hoop, he was not holding a basketball.

“Sometimes when we were practicing volleyball we had rims so I would take the volleyball and just start shooting,” Embiid said. “I never played basketball until I was 16.”

It was then, Embiid said, that his first basketball coach in Cameroon — he identified him as “coach Moudio” — gave him a highlight tape of a player that the 7-footer said he still watches, “almost every day.” Interestingly, it’s a tape of Olajuwon, who also came to basketball late after playing soccer.

“I want to learn everything he does, how he moves, everything,” Embiid said of the Nigerian nicknamed “The Dream.”

Embiid said his father thought it was a better idea to continue playing volleyball than to pick up basketball. Embiid said his father’s brother, who had played basketball, convinced him that his son was well suited for the sport.

Embiid attended the academy at which the coach gave him the Olajuwon tape in February 2011, then caught the eye of former UCLA player Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at camp six months later.

The following fall, Embiid moved without his family to Florida and enrolled in the Montverde Academy, described on its website as “an international, coeducational, independent college preparatory school.” He said he moved for academic reasons, but the school also is a basketball powerhouse, and the coach told him he had a bright future.

“Every time in practice I was guarding (Kentucky freshman) Dakari Johnson,” Embiid said. “That’s how I got better, playing other good players. It made me better. That’s why Kansas is the best place for me because we have players like Perry (Ellis), Landen (Lucas), Jamari (Traylor), Tarik (Black). All those bigs, I get to play against them every day, so I will get better.”

In order to apply in games what he learned against Johnson in practice, Embiid transferred to The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., for his senior season and averaged 13.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots to lead the school to its first state title.

Self called Embiid the “most talented” big man he has had at Kansas. That doesn’t mean he’s anywhere near the best yet, but it does mean the fast, 250-pound center who has gained 15 pounds since coming to Kansas has a ceiling too high to see at the moment.

Comments

iamakufan 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Hey, Tom, Matt, Jesse, or someone at kusports/ljworld, how about producing a pronunciation guide to help us with those players whose first and/or last names are not obvious how to pronounce? That would be very helpful to me, at least. Thanks in advance.

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phogphan2000 6 months, 4 weeks ago

I didn't read all the other posts, so maybe someone has made a similar comment, but...I hope he has some footage of Hakeem before he started taking extra steps. Best turn-around jumper from any center ever possibly, but later in his career he was definitely shuffling those feet a lot. I haven't seen much of Olajuwan's Phi Slamma Jamma days; I'm sure there's some impressive footage out there.

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jaybate 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Pre season player of the year is like pre love making female orgasm of the year. A lot don't quite reach crescendo and become as memorable as expected.

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Jeff Kilgore 6 months, 4 weeks ago

I have no idea what "raw" means to everyone on this board. Embiid's potential, whether he plays 10, 20, or 30 minutes has little to do with the 2014 draft. If he shows much at all, he's gone. I hate that, but the NBA just won't wait!

Would LOVE to be wrong.

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AJ Vanderhorst 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Access the site via an iPhone. Voila, no ads.

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Tippyhawk 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Can anyone direct me as to how to bypass or eliminate the Google survey. PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!

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baldwinbulldawg 6 months, 4 weeks ago

hope he stays more than 1 year, not nearly ready physically or mentally, NBA big's will eat him alive inside

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Ryan Houston 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Embiid is a raw talent no one can deny that. There are a few question marks surrounding his game. First off, can he block shots at the college level? Kansas will need an insurance policy at the rim this year. Because Kansas has such a young group of guys who are bound to make mistakes. Is he a physical type player? Or is he going to be like withey, and get bumped around in the paint? Embiid supposedly has a pretty solid offensive game. Mystery still surrounds his shooting ability. It is still questionable if HCBS will even allow him to take many mid rang shots. And will he dominate the post? That all depends on if he will play physical enough to do damage below. Will the depth of Kansas has at big man position be a key component in March? The 2011 team had plenty of big men but still got edged out by VCU in the Elite 8. With being such a young player; will he get to a point where he can handle a load, and start? Will Embiid get rapidly better as the season progresses? With his lack of basketball knowledge, this could be a big learning curve for the young Embiid. The main question is will be able to pull it all together by March, and compete for a national championship?

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Fortesque Beagleton 6 months, 4 weeks ago

So is he a legit 7 footer? We've had a couple who stretched their roster height a bit (Kaun, Aldrich), and then Withey shows up to the combine and measures 7-1. How tall is this guy really?

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Annette Lee 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Sorry Tarik I'll get it right..

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Annette Lee 6 months, 4 weeks ago

I think the best thing is the ones going against the twos.. Tarick and Perry learning how to get past Jo Jo and Lucas or Mickelson ..iron sharpening iron..

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BucknellJayhawk3 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Depth chart game:

Will see action: Wiggins, Ellis, Selden, Tharpe, Embiid, Black, Mason, Traylor. n= 8

Work to do: Lucas, CF, AW3, BG. n=4

Sounds like a few of these guys won't get in there. Can Lucas beat anyone out? Can BG or AW3 get 10 mpg? Can't wait to see who brings the most to the table.

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clevelandjayhawker 6 months, 4 weeks ago

Im guessing Embiid plays around 7-12 mins a game and comes back for year 2. Or we are sitting on a goldmine.

My worry is the freshmen wall, if Joel can do what he did this spring and summer in the all star games we will be fine. What is crazy is this time last year he was ranked around #80 in his class and had to transfer schools for playing time.

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Keith Gellar 7 months ago

this couldn't have come at a better time..given how our football team is doing, we need to do everything to distract everyone's attention and move their eyes of the eyesore that is KU football.

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justanotherfan 7 months ago

I think Embiid plays quite a bit this year, actually. This KU team is perfectly suited for him, in all honesty.

Think about it. The most difficult thing to learn in basketball is offense. That's the skillset that takes the most practice to develop. The dribbling, footwork, ball handling, shooting touch, that all takes a lot of time to develop in a way that is useful in live game action. JoJo hasn't had that time. Fortunately, his soccer and volleyball background gives him an edge on footwork. Unfortunately, his lack of basketball experience hurts him in the shooting, ball handling and passing areas.

Defensively, though, he can be a beast right away. We saw how much the volleyball experience helped Jeff Withey. And JoJo is much more mobile than Withey. Soccer players have to develop a keen sense for angles and the mobility to cover lots of open space. Most basketball big men struggle in space because they were parked in the paint at a very young age and never had to venture very far defensively.

Think about a guy like Anthony Davis. He was a guard for most of his life, then grew 8 inches while in high school. He defends a lot more space than a lot of bigger guys. Same with a guy like Kevin Garnett. He was a guard for a while, then grew and ended up being a PF.

JoJo actually benefits in that respect from taking up basketball much later, because he avoided getting parked in the paint as a 10 year old swatting every shot that came his way, while losing that good footwork development. By developing footwork first, he is a much more versatile defender than he may have otherwise become.

As for the weight and strength, let's remember that Withey wasn't 250 when he graduated, so I think JoJo is already big enough to play here. I would expect that he will be well above average defensively this season, but not very strong offensively. My guess is that he plays a lot with the best three scorers (Selden, Wiggins, Ellis) and doesn't play a lot with the more defensive minded interior players like Black and Traylor. Since Wiggins, Selden and Ellis will likely get the most minutes of anybody, I wouldn't be surprised to see JoJo grab 20 or so mpg.

Also, he appears to be ambidextrous, as he blocks shots with both hands and has both a righty and a lefty jump hook already.

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jaybate 7 months ago

Raprichard,

U r not disagreeing with me on this. U R disagreeing with Self. It is Self that thinks JE won't play a bunch of minutes, because of strength and toughness issues. I just put it in a rational context. I agree with Self.

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jaybate 7 months ago

Reuben, many a jayhawk has been seduced and frustrated by the latest football coach KU has hired the last 100 or so years. It is part of the crucible of the path to basketball enlightenment. The wise leave KU football in the hands of fickle gods.

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Michael Luby 7 months ago

I really really hope JoJo doesn't declare for the League after 1 year. Sounds like he needs 2 at the very least.

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jaybate 7 months ago

Brock, u rite but for the bones. In present worth of bones, it almost never pencils to forego a big lump sum now for two in the bush. If there were a serious shot at Lebron bones in one year deferral, then yes. But over ten to twenty years the lost compounding on foregoing a million now is absolutely brutal. As Einstein said, his formulas were as nothing in effect compared to compound interest formulas. But calculus aside, I'm on board with what u r saying.

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jaybate 7 months ago

bjdku, u seem to misapprehend that I do not forget JE's off shore hood. Frankly awareness of where did the head first tack down the birth canal was central to my remark. :-)

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Tony Bandle 7 months ago

OMG....7'-0" tall soccer players in Cameroon??!!

Soccer and volleyball are more a function of economics than choice in Africa. All you need is a ball, a net and a field and both sports are covered.. Every other sport requires so much more.

Can anyone name a major league baseball player or football player from Africa? I couldn't.

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Doug Cramer 7 months ago

Reuben - I thought this website was pumping the KU football kool-aid a month ago. Tait had everyone thinking we had a shot at a bowl bid before the season started :) love ya Tait !!!

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Reuben_J_Cogburn 7 months ago

You know....I was pretty frustrated a month before football season started, and this Web site kept pumping out nothing but basketball.

But now....given the embarrassing train wreck our football team is yet again....I welcome them with open arms.

Bring us more basketball!!!!

Rock Chalk!

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Robert Brock 7 months ago

This kid has hardly played any basketball and there is a lot more to the game than being tall and swatting a few shots. He hasn't shown much and Tarik Black will be the starter at center for the Hawks this season. Expect Embiid to return for his sophomore year.

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REHawk 7 months ago

Good article, Keegan. I hope to see much more of you as this highly entertaining KU hoops season approaches.

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VaJay 7 months ago

I say put him in at defensive end till the season starts!!

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jaybate 7 months ago

PLaying other sports does not explain why guys are good basketball players. It explains why it takes them so long to become good basketball players. If Joel had played hoops from the start, he would be a starter this season.

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jaybate 7 months ago

“He’s got a long way to go from a strength standpoint and a toughness standpoint to be able to play a ton of minutes his rookie season,” Self cautioned...

This is the only part of the story that matters this season.

He will play 10 mpg, if he doesn't screw up too much.

And the 15 pound gain? Those are KU pounds; that's 5-7 NBA pounds.

Conclusion: Self is not going to play him much this season. Joel has to get stronger and stick two years to get a big investment in PT by Self. Since the NBA is likely to take Joel, Self is not going to radically alter the depth chart for him. Joel gets to get better in practice. KU bigs get to practice against a footer every day. Self gets to go to a zone for short stretches with a squatter inside.

If he were to stay two, he would be the guy Self builds around.

Next.

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Robert Rauktis 7 months ago

Al McGuire recognized the potential of transnational African kids before any others. He liked Hakeem for his deft footwork and preached their early training in soccer on that continent as the instigator for these non-Americans seemingly mastering basketball precision.

Wilt always wanted to be a goal keeper.

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jvhawk22 7 months ago

The NBA drafts on potential and big men with length that have any potential at all will get drafted high. I'd be shocked if he was here 2 years

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Doug Cramer 7 months ago

Let's hope he stays in the KU program for a few years...and doesn't prematurely join the NBA.

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Michael Luby 7 months ago

Embiid gained 15 pounds since coming to Kansas!? Thats awesome. Thats beastly. Thats Hudy. Btw, thanks TK for the post. Good stuff.

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Dirk Medema 7 months ago

The 250-pound center who has gained 15 pounds since coming to Kansas - the hudization has begun. That is going to be such an amazing frontline by the end of the year, and the wings could/should be even better.

So much fun to be.

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