The question keeps coming for Kansas coach Bill Self, almost daily at this point. It came after precocious freshman center Joel Embiid overwhelmed New Mexico inside the Sprint Center in early December. It came after a road victory against Iowa State. It came again on Saturday, after Embiid had assaulted Oklahoma State’s frontcourt with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks, a near triple-double in his 17th college game.Did you really think Joel Embiid could be this good this fast?
To answer this question, Self tells a story from last summer, in the days after Embiid had arrived on campus. Embiid was a 7-foot specimen, blessed with the coordination of a kid who had grown up playing soccer in Cameroon. But he had played just two years of organized basketball since arriving in America, and the outside world had little idea what to make of him. He was a mouth-watering talent, but was he a project?
In some ways, Self was still learning about Embiid as well. But during one of their first conversations in Lawrence, Self told Embiid what he expected.
“You’re going to be the No. 1 pick,” Self told Embiid. “Now, it may not be this year, but you will be a No. 1 pick.”
Self, of course, wasn’t necessarily thinking about the 2014 NBA Draft. He, too, suspected that Embiid would need time. But when the kid got it, there was no telling how good he could be.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be this year,” Self says, recalling the conversation from last summer. “But if he comes out, and he times it right, he can be the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
If there’s anything we’ve learned about Embiid during his freshman season, it’s the foolhardy nature of putting limits on his growth and potential. Freshman centers who have played two years of organized basketball are not supposed to be this dominant. They’re not supposed to be averaging 11.0 points, eight rebounds and three blocks while playing just 23 minutes per game.
Joel Embiid was not supposed to be Kansas’ most irreplaceable player.
But as the 15th-ranked Jayhawks prepare to play host to No. 12 Baylor at 8 p.m. on Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse, that’s exactly what Embiid has become.
“I don’t think it should come as a surprise to him,” Self said. “Because he’s been told all along he’s capable of doing this.”
So now his world begins to change. Embiid’s name is now atop many NBA Draft boards. NBA executives are starting to break down every game.
“I think he’s aware,” Self said. “He’s very, very bright. But I don’t think he’s caught up in what the world says.”
While his offensive skill set is advanced for a raw 7-footer, Embiid has begun to make his biggest impact on the defensive end. He had a career-high eight blocks in a victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday, and his presence was partially responsible for holding preseason Big 12 player of the year Marcus Smart to a three-for-14 shooting night.
“Every game I have the same mind-set,” Embiid says. “I try to alter every shot or block it. So I think I was lucky, and I got a few blocks.”
Embiid’s transformation into a bona fide rim-protector has helped tighten up a defense that has yet to measure up to some Kansas defenses of recent vintage. But for Self, it’s just another example of Embiid’s capacity to grow.
“Joel is one of the few kids that actually sees things objectively about himself,” Self said. “We can't be objective about your own children; that's impossible. But he's actually objective about himself and where he is.”
For now, Embiid’s rise means Self must face a classic college basketball quandary. The better Embiid plays, the more likely he could be gone after this season. Self hasn’t downplayed Embiid’s NBA ceiling (“Joel has a chance to be an NBA Allâ‘Star,” he says) but he’s quick to point out that he’s just starting to figure things out.
The question keeps coming: Did anyone think Embiid could be this good this year? For Self, the answer is always close to the same: Actually, yes.
“(Joel) can study himself and be like, ‘You know what? I should be doing this or I should be doing that,’” Self says. “So I don't think his play would surprise himself at all. If anything I think he would say, ‘Well, just wait, I can do a lot more.’”