VAHE GREGORIAN

KU’s Joel Embiid cool under pressure

Updated: 2014-02-03T23:48:48Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

— Whether the notion was to provoke or merely suffocate Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid, it took only seconds Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse for Baylor to reveal its most urgent priority:

Swarm, stifle, pester and otherwise harass Embiid, the infinitely intriguing talent with the somewhat enigmatic temperament still navigating the embryonic stages of his basketball career.

“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “Every time I caught the ball in the post, they double-teamed.”

First and foremost, Baylor was going to embed itself in Embiid and go from there against KU, which stiff-armed the Bears in the second half for a 78-68 victory to culminate a remarkable stretch of five Big 12 wins in five games against currently ranked teams.

Embiid had earned the attention, and in more ways than one.

With his recent play, highlighted by the 13-point, 11-rebound, eight blocked shot-performance Saturday against Oklahoma State.

And just as certainly with his recent bursts of temper, most vividly demonstrated in the flagrant fouls he’d been assessed in each of KU’s previous three games.

Afterward, KU coach Bill Self dismissed the idea that Embiid had work to do in that territory, calling it “much (ado) about nothing” other than the elbow that got him kicked out against Kansas State.

“Since then, his temperament hasn’t been bad,” Self said, adding, “He has a tendency sometimes to flail his arms.”

But it sure seems more complicated than that for Embiid, who has been, uh, encouraged by Self to toughen up.

So it’s not hard to make the connection that the mind-set that has led to those excesses is entwined with the enhanced intensity that has triggered his recent surge and emergence from some soft moments earlier in the season.

That’s why he was fouled three times in the first 2 minutes 22 seconds of the game and why there was a little extra English applied to him more than a few times, including a rough thump by Royce O’Neale that sent Embiid backpedaling late in the first half.

Never mind that Embiid had staggered so far away from O’Neale that he would have had to rev himself to go back at him.

What mattered was that Embiid responded without a squawk and by simply gathering himself and making two free throws.

“I need to keep my cool: Don’t react,” said Embiid, who acknowledged it was a point of emphasis for this game. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I feel like I did pretty good.”

That wasn’t exactly the glamour point of the game, of course.

For that, we’ll take Wayne Selden’s mesmerizing and maybe unforgettable (and apparently out of bounds) backward leap over the scorer’s table into the stands to save a ball to Embiid that gave the Jayhawks a 53-44 lead.

But that moment late in the first half, and the game itself, marked a night of growth for Embiid, whose play — and disposition — the rest of the season will go a long way toward dictating KU’s trajectory in March.

Despite his modest numbers of 12 points, four rebounds, one blocked shot and three turnovers, the broader meaning was that as hounded as he was Embiid stayed poised.

He demonstrated impulse control and an ability to distinguish response from rash reaction, revealing that he may understand that there can be more toughness in restraint than in retaliation.

Of course, demonstrating that potential and harnessing it consistently are two different things, and Embiid will face a lot more of the same treatment ahead.

But it was crucial that he begin overcoming that now, as much for his own development as for the perception of him.

If he wasn’t already acquiring a reputation that would lead to more officiating scrutiny and the attendant anticipation of fouls, he was getting close.

And that can be a hard tag to lose.

Maybe more meaningfully, though, it was imperative Embiid come to terms with his own absurd talents and maximizing them.

The game itself remains so fresh to him, so of course the demands and challenges of it do, too.

Yet he’s already displayed a breathtaking grasp and feel for so much, coupling that with uncanny agility for a 7-footer.

Now he’s reconciling how to play angry without being angry, how to be aggressive without being reckless and how to stay passionate without being easily inflamed.

And if Monday was any indication, he is sorting out the differences.

“No more technicals any more,” he said.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com

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