Joel Embiid took a deep breath before entering the interview room to make the announcement that was largely a foregone conclusion.
“After thinking a lot, I decided to declare for the NBA Draft,” Embiid said Wednesday, flanked by Kansas coach Bill Self at a news conference.
The decision had been made on Sunday, Embiid said. He had talked to his parents, adviser Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and some current and past NBA players, including the one he has been most often compared to at a similar age, Hakeem Olajuwon.
Olajuwon, a NBA Hall of Famer, is also Embiid’s idol.
“I was excited,” Embiid said of their conversation this week. “He was talking to me, and I don’t even remember what he said. I was just like, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Embiid figures to make a more definitive statement in the NBA, where analysts who project the draft order have him being taken in the top five.
“His ceiling is ridiculously high,” Self said.
Embiid followed teammate Andrew Wiggins in declaring for the draft after one season of college basketball. But Embiid arrived at Kansas with less fanfare, and because he, unlike Wiggins, didn’t arrive with a one-and-done mentality, some Jayhawks fans held out hope that Embiid might return for another season.
“We knew he’d be really, really good,” Self said. “But we didn’t know how long it would take. He kind of exceeded our expectations.”
Embiid, a Cameroon native, had played organized basketball for three years before signing with the Jayhawks. He was discovered in his homeland by Mbah a Moute, a fellow countryman, former UCLA standout and veteran forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Mbah a Moute directed Embiid to Montverde Academy in Florida, and Embiid finished his prep career at The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., before signing with Kansas.
The Jayhawks weren’t exactly sure what they had, other than a 7-footer with enormous potential. Embiid didn’t start the season’s first eight games. But he became one of the game’s top big men, averaging 11.2 points and team bests with 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. The rebound average and 72 total blocks set school records for freshmen.
He became a major factor in Kansas’ run to a 10th straight Big 12 regular-season championship, but his season was cut short because of a stress fracture in his lower back. Embiid missed a total of seven games, including KU’s last six, of which the Jayhawks lost three.
Embiid said he could have played in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, but the Jayhawks lost to Stanford in the round of 32.
The back problem didn’t play a role in his decision, Embiid said. But when Embiid recalls his year at Kansas, Self thinks there will be an empty feeling for not having the opportunity to play in March Madness.
“That’s something, when he looks back, for all the positives out there, if there is a negative to leaving, it’s that there’s an incomplete,” Self said. “The thing we value as important, he didn’t get a chance to participate in.”
But Embiid did complete one chapter. Early in the season, a reporter asked him about an account of killing a lion when he was a boy. Embiid didn’t exactly deny the tale, which made it into print and became a source of amusement among teammates.
Wednesday, Embiid fessed up. Did he kill the lion?
“No,” Embiid said, his head down and laughing. “I didn’t.”