The 7-foot freshman with the graceful feet and balletic moves was supposed to need time. Joel Embiid could be great, Bill Self had said. Maybe even a young Hakeem Olajuwon. But even the great ones need to learn, even the winners of life’s genetic lottery need some time to master their gifts.
On Tuesday night, just three games into his career at Kansas, Embiid finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds as the second-ranked Jayhawks rolled over Iona 86-66 in front of a crowd of 16,300
“I’ve known it all along,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Just seven days after a 94-83 victory over Duke at the Champions Classic, a statement that the young Jayhawks could play with anyone, Kansas was far from perfect. There were some early turnover issues, some defensive lapses and some sluggish stretches in the first half.
But in the midst of the growing pains, there was Embiid, gliding across the lane from the right block and finishing a elegant scoop at the rim. It was almost ballet, a 7-footer pulling off a post move right from the coaching manual. It wasn’t his only move, either.
There was a baby hook, an easy drop step, a couple of nice passes into the lane to slashing cutters. When Embiid finally exited the game in the final minutes, he was a perfect seven of seven from the floor.
In the stands, Embiid’s father, Thomas, watched while in town from their native Cameroon. If he hadn’t already grasped the nature of his son’s basketball ability, it was on full display Tuesday.
“I’m not sure he had an idea,” Embiid said. “I’m not great, I’m not good right now, I’m still working. …
“But I don’t think he had an idea I could have a chance.”
Thomas Embiid had arrived in Lawrence at 5 p.m. Tuesday after nearly two days of travel. A colonel in the Cameroon military, he had made a brief stop in Washington, D.C., before sitting down to watch his son play basketball for the first time.
“I am very, very impressed by the match,” Thomas Embiid said, before adding: “If he comes here in America, it’s to improve himself first … to do what he wanted to do.
While Kansas sophomore Perry Ellis continued his early season clinic in the post, finishing with 21 points, freshman Andrew Wiggins added 13 points and a couple of highlight-reel lob dunks.
But it was Embiid who offered a glimpse of what Kansas can become.
“He does things in practice,” Self said. “The ball will just be bouncing, and he’ll just kick the ball to me by doing some soccer move. Just things 7-footers can’t do.”
Just as Self still talks about Embiid in terms of potential, the same can be said about Wiggins, whose most impressive play may have come midway through the second half. Wiggins made a steal in the backcourt, backed the ball out for a split-second, then attacked the rim and set up Ellis for an up-and-under alley-oop.
It was the kind of unselfishness that KU players have spoken about since early October. Wiggins is comfortable attacking, but he’d just as soon make the extra pass.
For Ellis, it was the second straight game with 20 points — and just the third of his career.
“I just try to attack every time,” Ellis said.
Junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, after a sluggish season debut against Duke, finished with 10 assists.
By late in the second half, as the Jayhawks were tossing alley-oops to freshman point guard Frank Mason — that’s 5-foot-11 Frank Mason — it was easy to gloss over some of the early struggles.
Now it’s a question of what comes next? Embiid, who replaced senior Tarik Black in the lineup at the beginning of the second half, adds another dimension to Kansas. A 7-footer with natural moves and nimble feet — even more possibility for a young team still building toward something bigger.
“You guys saw just a small glimpse of how good his feet are,” Self said. “And he’s smart, and he gets it, and he’s just figuring stuff out all the time. I’m real pleased with his development, but I still think we’re not even scratching the surface of what he can become.”