When Joel Embiid arrived in Kansas last summer to play for Bill Self and the Jayhawks, he had only played organized basketball for two years and was expected to be several years away from making the jump to the pro level. Less than a year later, Embiid sits in the top-3 of nearly every big board for this year’s NBA draft and holds the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year title.
A native of Cameroon (Luc Mbah a Moute is a mentor of his) and the son of a former professional handball player, Embiid grew up playing soccer and volleyball before making the switch to hoops. Embiid looks as though he was born to play the game. Blessed with a 7 foot, 250 pound frame, a 7’5” wing span and fluid athleticism that defies his size, Embiid passes the “eye test” and then some. He was ranked as the number 6 overall player on the ESPN 100 coming out of high school, so the fact that he’s a very good player is not a surprise. That Embiid is so good, so soon has amazed scouts and coaches alike.
Embiid oozes potential to this point that it’s difficult not to sound hyperbolic when writing about his game. The thing that is perhaps most impressive about him, aside from his sheer size and athleticism, is his feet. His balance, agility on defense, and footwork in the post are all phenomenal. The footwork is especially impressive given how new he is to the game. Embiid already possesses an exciting array of drop steps, up-and-unders, and spin moves in his arsenal – with an impressively soft touch around the basket.
Coach Bill Self has compared Embiid to a young Hakeem Olajuwon and, true to form, Embiid even makes effective use of Hakeem’s patented Dream Shake in games.
Embiid not only has great moves in the post, he also shows great touch. He shot a sizzling 64% on 2-point field goals this season, good for 2nd in the Big 12. While Embiid does most of his damage at the rim, his textbook jump shot is also promising and his ability to spread the floor at the next level by hitting 12 footers will make him even more dangerous. In transition, Embiid gets from end to end quickly and handles passes on the move very well for a man his size. Most importantly, he wants to learn and get better.
It’s no coincidence that Embiid’s game resembles Hakeem’s. In an interview with Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy, Embiid revealed:
“When I started playing basketball, my coach back in Cameroon the first day he gave me a video of Hakeem Olajuwon. He told me to watch it every day. After practice, after every practice, I’d watch every move he did — and I’d just keep doing that. I just fell in love with his game, his footwork, how he moves. I was so proud — I wanted to be like him, because he’s African, moved from Nigeria to the U.S. I just felt if I had the chance to come here, I would try to do the same thing.”
It’s extremely encouraging to know that Embiid is not only supremely talented, but also a student of the game. Of course, that comes as no surprise to anyone who watched Embiid introduce something new to his game seemingly from game-to-game during his rapid ascent to the top of the draft rankings this season.
At the other end of the floor Embiid managed to take home the Defensive POY award in the Big 12 despite only scratching the surface in terms of his overall defensive potential. He averaged 2.6 blocks in only 23 minutes per game this season – but as with all shot blockers, it is the shots that are avoided by his presence in the key that are also important. Per 40 minutes that rounds out to a robust 4.5 bpg.
Embiid closes out quickly, jumps well, has good timing and uses his huge wing span to create a ton of havoc defensively. He is extremely coordinated and moves exceptionally well laterally. Embiid doesn’t just pass the eye test on defense; his 90.9 defensive rating led the Big 12. Embiid is also a very good rebounder. He averaged “only” 8.1 rebounds per game for this season but he pulled down 14 rebounds per 40 minutes and his total rebound percentage was 1st in the Big 12 and 10th overall in the nation – and he shared the court with other good rebounders like Andrew Wiggins (6 rpg) and Perry Ellis (7 rpg). Simply put, Embiid didn’t just have a good season – he had a great season.
What does he need to work on?
Despite all of the praise the developing Embiid still has plenty to work on. His biggest weakness right now is his lack of experience. On offense, he doesn’t always make the best decisions in terms of shot selection or reading the defense. He turned the ball over 2.4 times a game and sometimes played outside of his means. While he scored in double figures fairly consistently, he never exceeded the 18-point plateau.
Embiid has a very strong upper body but he looked worn down as the season went on. He’ll have to work on strength and conditioning in order to battle against the big boys for a grueling 82-game schedule. On defense, Embiid has a lot to learn. The learning curve for big men is always especially steep as they move from one level to the next and Embiid has been playing organized basketball for less than three years. He too often finds himself out of position and he’s quick to leave his feet or commit unnecessary fouls. On both sides of the court he doesn’t put his massive frame to good use as much as he should and lacks the in-your-face toughness of guys like Julius Randle or Marcus Smart.
Finally, a back injury kept him out of tournament play. Back injuries are always a concern when you’re talking about big men. But there is one constant – you can’t teach a man to grow taller, but you can coach tall players. Embiid is a project to be sure, but his upside easily makes him a top 3 pick. But is he the right pick for the Bucks?
How could he fit with the Bucks?
On March 16 Yahoo’s Marc J. Spears tweeted: “NBA scout told me Kansas’ Joel Embiid is the only “potential franchise player” in this draft. I believe Duke’s Jabari Parker will be one too.”
But if the Bucks agree that Embiid is the draft’s best player then they will likely have to reshuffle their roster. In terms of fit, Embiid is probably the worst of the big names at the top of the draft board for the Bucks.
The other issue to consider is that all of this may be for naught as Embiid is still undecided about entering the draft. On this subject Embiid stated publically in January that he takes stock in the fact that other great big men such as Hakeem, Shaq and Duncan all refined their game at the college level for multiple seasons before making the jump to the pros:
“I’m trying to learn everything and what other people did. All of the great big men went to college at least two or three years. I think it’s a big factor. I don’t know if it will always work, but I think it’s the best choice.”
Big men take longer to develop at the pro level and those that leave after their freshmen year sometimes take several years to fit in – if at all. The one special tool that Embiid would provide the Bucks that they don’t already have is low post scoring. He needs to add some strength but his frame is much more impressive than any big man on the Bucks’ current roster.
Additionally the extent and persistence of Embiid’s back injury is still to be determined. Embiid is a fast learner but he probably will not produce as quickly as Jabari Parker or Randle. The vacillation between amazing plays and basic mistakes of someone new to the game will prove frustrating. Having said that, Embiid shocked everyone with how quickly he produced and improved at the college level. He is a hard worker and a student of the game so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if his trajectory to stardom was faster than anticipated.
Embiid is by all accounts a likeable and intelligent person. Like many other big men with similar personalities toughness may be an issue though he certainly had a productive freshman season. In the end the Bucks will have to decide whether they think the gap between Embiid and someone such as Parker or Wiggins is such that it justifies taking a guy that will create a logjam in the frontcourt.
With the back injuries and the $44,000,000 contract with Larry Sanders’s name on it, is Embiid worth the gamble?