Joel Embiid – Breakdown of the draft’s highest ceiling

He's just a kid havin' fun!  (AP Photo/Lawrence Journal-World, Nick Krug)
He’s just a kid havin’ fun! (AP Photo/Lawrence Journal-World, Nick Krug)

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?

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Categories: Draft Talk

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  1. Always go with BAP — roster composition be damned. Should the Lakers have passed up Magic because they already had Norm Nixon? Should the Spurs have passed up Duncan because of David Robinson? Should the Blazers have passed up Jordan because they already had Drexler? You get the idea. BAP. Always. Or live to regret your opponent beating you & your “balanced” roster for years because the NBA is ruled by superstars.

    • Agreed, plus I think Embiid does actually fit the roster quite well as it gives the Bucks 3 young athletic bigs to make use of in a rotation.

      Embiid/Sanders/Pachulia or Sanders/Embiid/Pachulia at Center
      Sanders/Henson/Ilaysova or Henson/Sanders/Ilaysova at Power Forward

      That sounds a million times more promising and better than…

      Sanders/Pachulia/Henson at Center
      Ilyasova/Henson/Sanders or Henson/Ilyasova/Sanders at Power Forward

      Though, the back injury is a concern and it’s the only reason to question selecting him above the other promising players. I’m still leaning toward A.Wiggins as the #1 pick, but I don’t think I’d be upset if they went with J.Embiid #1 if they felt good about the future of his back.

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  3. If Embiid’s offensive game is as good as people say it is, then I don’t see why Sanders can’t slide down to the 4.

    • Sanders at the 4. Yeah. Have you ever watched an NBA game?

      What’s next, Wolters at the 5?

      • He played PF in college, smart ass.

        If Henson can play PF then so can Sanders, how big/heavy do you think Sanders is?

  4. NonononononononononononononoonoonnoononononoononononoNO!

    There is no time for a project. None whatsoever. Especially a redundant one with a bad back still figuring out the game. There’s already one guy on the roster furiously taking notes, no need for two.

    Wiggins, Parker, Exum. In that order. That’s it. That’s what’s up. With last night’s loss, they should have a Top 4 sewn up, and one of those dudes will be available.

    And if not, Randle.

    Nothing personal to Embiid, just, no. Drafting him is drafting the All-Star center for the Seattle Supersonics in five years. Please don’t. This is too important.

    • You’re taking Randle over Embiid? Hope your name isn’t John Hammond. If he is an all-star centre you draft him no ifs ands or buts.

      • Right, but Embiid is not an All-Star center. He’s a guy who’s played ball for three years with back issues. Randle knows the game, is already Pro strong, can have the offense run through him, and he can get buckets and rebounds. He ever figures out a decent jump shot, he’d be unstoppable.

        • Then pick a position

          . “Drafting him is drafting the All-Star center for the Seattle Supersonics in five years.”

          “Right, but Embiid is not an All-Star center.”

    • And Wiggins isn’t a project? Embiid is the player with the most potential in the draft and the Bucks need a franchise player. I believe that Randle is one of the worst top 5 prospects for many reasons. Randle is a short (6-8) PF with nearly no outside shot and is reliant only on his left hand. In the Wisconsin game you could always predict that Randle would go to his left.

    • However I do agree that Wiggins is an ideal choice, but I personally would but Embiid next, and then continue the list. I just don’t think Jabari has that much potential. I think what we see is what we get, and I really don’t see how he’ll play in the Bucks system because I think he plays like a small power forward. I love Exum, but he isn’t worth the #1 pick and we already have a decent pg in Knight.

    • I’m not sure who’s better and I’d probably be happy with either. But whoever the scouts determine is the best player/most apt to be a future star is who they must take. They’ve won 14 games and their roster quality has a lot to do with it. Taking redundancies into consideration is pointless when your team’s that bad. If you’re picking from the very top of the order you need to get a difference maker in whatever form that takes. Frankly, they’re all positions of need for the Bucks so please don’t worry if the best player available might crowd out Sanders/Henson/Middleton/Knight in the rotation.

      • I don’t want to crowd out Knight, who’s a baller just figuring out how to run a team without having to be The Man ever night, and I would like to give Larry another year as a starter to match what he did last year. Otherwise, I’ll buy what you’re selling on Henson and Middleton. They can become contributors in other areas. My list above is more in descending order if the Bucks don’t get the #1 pick. If they do get #1, I think it has to be Wiggins. He’s only a project insomuch as consistency is concerned, but you know that kid knows the game. I think the same about Parker, except he has less athleticism.

        And no, Exum is not a #1 pick. He might be #3 or #4, however.

  5. Hello, people! Have we forgotten about Wiggens? He is the chosen one, good dribbling skills, good shooting skills, excellent speed and athleticism, and a good head on his shoulders. Talk about ceiling, the dude can bounce to it! Gimme dat Wiggins!

  6. I say Jabari Parker or bust. In this league you do need an offensive player that can score. Jabari Parker may be more like Melo, however he doesn’t play hero ball… yet. Knowing John Hammond he’ll chase the playoffs if he feel’s Jabari Parker can get him back into that mix. Jabari Parker is not a Melo. His game is more like Paul Pierce’s in my opinion. If I can’t get Jabari, I go with Marcus Smart. I don’t care if he’s going to be just like Rajon Rondo. He’ll be a 6’4 Rajon Rondo, and let that young man become a full grown man. He has the frame of Dwade, with the aggressiveness of Rondo. He isn’t the best floor general, but give him time. I’d like to see the Bucks either draft a scorer, or draft someone with the size at point to penetrate and dish off to our big men, or kick it out to Brandon Knight.

    • Lots of talking heads arguing that Jabari could be Carmelo (or Paul Pierce in this case) but If we’re talking comparables — is he really anything more than a new version of Big Dog?

      Parker’s year at Duke looks pretty similar Robinson’s first season at Purdue — from stats to how they physically overwhelmed undersized or sluggish college defenders even down to a first game elimination in the NCAA tourney.

      Now GRII was a fine player but I’m guessing most Bucks fans are hoping for more out of this year’s pick than a second banana/borderline All Star like Robinson was. Of course, even taking your team to a single conference final (Robinson & Carmelo, Pierce before hooking up with Allen & Garnett) looks a lot better than the status quo for the Bucks.

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  8. So outside of fit, because we know that JH loves the best played available, who do these players project to be like, what’s the risk and then who do we take?

    Embiid – upside Hakeem, downside Oden
    Wiggins – upside Paul George, downside an average SF
    Parker – upside Melo, downside a below average SF who shoots too much

    I don’t know about you but if Hakeem is even an unlikely option I think you have to take him. Top 3 center of all time versus two SF who might not crack the top 3 now.

    And what does 2015 draft look like? Probably more players like Wiggins/Parker than Embiid..? We’re certainly not going from 14 wins to a deep playoff run/playoffs so that needs to be considered, too.

  9. very very difficult choice.

    is it an exaggeration to say this pick will alter the franchise fortunes for the next 10 years?

  10. Dear god. What have you guys been reading?

    Larry Sanders can and has played PF. Truthfully, I’d put Embiid at the 4 before I’d put Larry at the 4. Either way, this is why you have a rotation.

    You always ALWAYS take the BPA. Never draft for need.

    I’m worried about Embiid’s back issues and I think that’s a valid concern.

    Right now, I’d go:

    1) Wiggins
    2) Parker
    3) Embiid
    4) Exum

    Then, there is an enormous drop off in upside:

    5) Vonleh
    6) Randle
    7) Smart
    8) Gordon

    I’d honestly be really happy with any of the top 4. I still maintain that there’s a good chance that Exum is the best player out of this draft.

    • If we’re at 4 and Embiid is there, you kinda have to do it.
      But in order I’d go:
      Wiggins – Tell me you wouldn’t get out of your seat with Giannis and Wiggins on a fast break. Tell me that isn’t worth a ton to this franchise.
      Parker – Inevitable 20+ PPG scorer. Anecdotal, but I don’t see the Melo comparisons. I watched a lot of Duke and never got a sense Parker was a ball hog, high volume shooter. He also played out of position in most games cause Duke had no size. Defense is a concern, but character isn’t … yet, anyway.
      Randle – Double-Double machine. Watch him off the ball. He just gets it.
      Embiid – Eeeehhhhh … ok, I mean, I understand. But I’m not going to pretend I’d be excited about it.

  11. I got really excited about the potential reading this story, but the idea of a center with back issues terrifies me (Oden, even Bogut). Back trouble for big dudes just doesn’t go away.

    Still, knowing that the Bucks are guaranteed one of their top four choices in a draft class like this is reassuring. These Bucks are bad because of pretty terrible chemistry, coaching, playing time distribution, offense, veteran signings, trades … but Hammond DOES draft well.

  12. Would you guys be interested in maybe Lowry(sign and trade) and Derozan for Wiggins and Sanders? That would immediately put you guys in win now mode.

    Raptors fans are thinking that we can do a Jrue Holiday trade with Derozan, at the draft this year.

    • That sounds like a lose now and lose in the future trade to me.

      And since Lowry isn’t getting max money, the Bucks can just sign him as an unrestricted FA if they wanted without needing to trade. Which I don’t think they’ll do at this point as well as Knight is playing; and they could always resign the poor man’s version of Lowry… Sessions.

      Henson/Mayo and a future first round pick for Derozan sounds good to me though.

    • The one thing I learned in the only economics class I ever took is that you should buy low and sell high, and the trade you’re proposing is the exact opposite of that.

      So I’ll pass.