Joel Embiid loves devouring video tape, loves asking teammates for help, loves immersing himself in the game of basketball. This is partly why KU coaches love Embiid, a 7-foot freshman, and why NBA scouts believe he could be an All-Star center someday.
This is also why, earlier this season, the Kansas staff cut together some film of former Kansas center Jeff Withey, and KU coach Bill Self handed the tape to Embiid with a simple message:
“He was telling me I need to be a better rim-protector,” Embiid says.
Even as Kansas ascended to No. 2 in The Associated Press on Monday, even as the Jayhawks were just six days removed from a statement victory over Duke at the Champions Classic, Self is still clearly in early-season teaching mode. The Jayhawks are still working on “everything,” Self says. And as Kansas prepares to play host to Iona on Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse, the concerns largely fall on the defensive end.
“If teams are going to shoot 50 percent against us,” Self said, “we’ve got no chance.”
In two victories, opponents have shot 47.7 percent against Kansas’ defense, a number that is something like a slap in the face to a coach who worships at the altar of field-goal percentage defense. Last season, Kansas finished first in the country in the category, holding teams to just 36.1 percent shooting. Part of that number, though, could be credited to Withey, who spent his last season on campus becoming the Big 12 Conference’s all-time leading shot-blocker. If KU’s perimeter players had a breakdown on the defensive end, that just meant Withey had another chance to spike an opponent’s layup into the third row.
“We miss Jeff,” Self says. “There’s no question we miss Jeff.”
This is where Embiid, a 7-footer with a long wingspan and graceful feet, comes into the picture. Embiid grew up playing soccer in his native Cameroon, but he also toyed with the sport of volleyball, which was Withey’s boyhood love. If the Jayhawks are going to protect the rim with better efficiency, the task could largely fall on Embiid, who is still learning the art of shot-blocking.
“I think it’s all me,” Embiid says. “I have to have the mindset to block every shot. So it’s all me. I just have to have the mindset to block every shot or contest it.”
When Embiid speaks, his Cameroonian accent can appear reminiscent of Dikembe Mutombo, the former Congolese NBA center who made a career of wagging his finger at opponents after blocking a shot. But for now, Embiid says the craft is still a little foreign.
“I think I’m still learning to do it,” Embiid says. “I’m still learning when to not go for shot fakes and when to stay on the ground.”
Of course, there are other reasons for higher shooting percentages across the country. The new rules that have limited hand-checking and contact on the perimeter have turned games into free throw-shooting contests. As a result, teams are finishing with fewer total field goal attempts — and the looks that are counted in the box score are cleaner.
In Kansas’ game against Duke, both teams appeared to get into the paint at will. On the defensive end, it drove Self crazy.
“They just drove it right down our throat,” Self said.
But on the offensive end, KU freshman guard Frank Mason sliced into the lane with regularity, drawing fouls and shooting 12 free throws. If the new rules are going to limit contact on the perimeter and promote offense, penetrating guards such as Mason could be even more valuable.
“Frank can be really good,” KU junior guard Naadir Tharpe said. “He’s definitely shown a lot.”
But as Self prepares for two home games in four days before Kansas heads for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas next week, he’s mostly focused on keeping players out of the paint and protecting the rim.
“There’s so many things that we’ve got to do to improve on, and I think we will,” Self said. “We’ve been fortunate, we’ve been exposed, but we’ve also won. And that’s probably the best combination you can actually have.”