Saturday, December 21, 2013


Column: Embiid’s growth astounds Jayhawks


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.


Mark Lindrud 8 years, 4 months ago

Joel could end up being the one that's special in the end, and maybe he's the first pick. Lots of games still, but this season can still be amazing.

Suzi Marshall 8 years, 4 months ago

I just hope he stays focused on each and every game instead. It's a shame we will never see his best stuff. Fouls will probably hold him in check all year.

Len Shaffer 8 years, 4 months ago

I completely disagree, Suzi, about fouls holding him in check all year. Part of him being a sponge and learning so quickly will undoubtedly be his improvement on the defensive end.

I actually find it quite surprising that he's stronger on offense than defense right now, because you would think it would take longer for a basketball novice to learn things like shooting touch and moves to the basket than solid defense. But with as great a teacher as Self is for big men and for defense, I expect that Joel will have fewer and fewer foul problems as the season goes along.

Although you're right that we will never see his best stuff, what we will see should be pretty darn amazing, and I can't wait until he starts hitting his stride.

Suzi Marshall 8 years, 4 months ago

I hope you are right about him checking his fouls. With all the hyperbole about his developing game, which is truly amazing, there are some basics he needs to improve upon. He needs to learn when he jumps for the ball near the basket, for a pass or rebound, not to bring it back down but to continue on to put it down. He also needs to be stronger, quicker and learn better positioning off the ground. He's had several plays where a player was able to come over his back to get to the ball, notable example during the UF game when Young dunked over his back.

Kent Richardson 8 years, 4 months ago

Young was vastly more experienced in the subtle and not so subtle gamesman ship tactics that are a part of the big man contests. Young got rough and attitudinal with JoJo. I thought JoJo showed good control although he eyes and grim mouth acknowledged it. In the end Young was the one who lost his cool a little. It is Embiids's poise and control of his competitive fire under duress that can be added to the hyperbole.

Eddie Saldanha 8 years, 4 months ago

I agree Kent. He's shown a lot of class for a freshman, letting his effort on the court speak for him more often than his mouth. Love to see that from a Jayhawk. I do think he needs to work on defense, but that'll come automatically from coach. Being a Jayhawk will, by default, mean that defensive effort is expected and the role will come to him as he's learning at such a fast pace. He's just so long and quick that I think the offensive end is naturally going to race ahead of his defense. Fouls will diminish as he learns to let his feet take him where he needs to be instead of fouling to make up ground. If he can get in a good rhythm with either Black or Traylor, he could come in as the second defender and rule the blocking world. We always have good blocks when the blocker is backing up another defender. Of course, if today's straight-up rejection is an indication of anything, he may not need to!

Either way, love his attitude and love his enthusiasm. You can just see that he truly enjoys being here and loves playing.

A side note regarding enthusiasm, someone mentioned the other day on another comment that Black has had nothing but a good attitude supporting his teammates, particularly from the bench. I think that's great. Guy transfers, comes here for his last year, instantly becomes a Jayhawk and supports his guys even when he's not getting minutes. Very mature and positive. He deserved all his success today for that alone.


Aaron Paisley 8 years, 4 months ago

Even if Embiid were to stay at KU all 4 year, we'd still never see him at his ceiling in a KU uniform and that's a good thing. This kid may very well end up being one of the top 3 players to ever come out of Kansas by the time his basketball career is done because he is that special.

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