Former Kansas basketball star Joel Embiid has almost seemed too good to be true

06/21/2014 8:37 PM

06/23/2014 1:19 PM

On a summer day in 2012, a basketball instructor named Mike Lee arrived at an apartment in Milwaukee. He was there to pick up two teenage boys from Cameroon, and he did not know much else.

A few weeks earlier, Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a former star at UCLA, had called with a request. His younger brother, Roger, and another player from Cameroon would be spending the summer at his Milwaukee apartment.

Would Lee work with them?

So here he was, watching two rather gangling teenagers from Cameroon pile into his car. There was Roger, the younger brother, and there was the other, a mysterious kid who had apparently been in the United States for a year.

He looked to be approaching 7 feet tall. His name was Joel.

Lee, a young coach in the Milwaukee area, had been around plenty of elite athletes and top recruits. But just 20 minutes after arriving at The Woodlands Charter School in Milwaukee, Lee couldn’t take his eyes off the young big man from Cameroon. The way his frame moved in synchronized patterns, the way he asked questions, the way his feet seemed to dance around the paint, nearly on instinct.

This kid has been playing for only a year?

Across the gym stood former Louisville guard Jerry Smith, a Milwaukee native who was working out in the gym that day. Lee needed to confirm what he was seeing, so he wandered over to Smith, now a professional player in Europe.

“Yeah,” Smith said. “He’s going to be a lottery pick for sure.”

From the first day in that sweaty gym in Milwaukee, to the coming-of-age afternoons in Allen Fieldhouse, the idea of Joel Embiid has always felt too good to be true. He is part movie character, part comic-book hero, a walking 7-foot myth in sneakers.

To see Joel Embiid move on a basketball floor is to see Neon Boudeaux, Shaquille O’Neal’s character from “Blue Chips.” He could run like a wildcat, and he could finish with grace, and he could swallow a rim with a two-handed jam.

To compare Embiid to a young Hakeem Olajuwon — as Kansas coach Bill Self did before Embiid even played a college game — was just not enough. Joel Embiid felt fictional.

“His skill work is just ridiculous,” said former Kansas teammate Naadir Tharpe. “The first time I saw him dribbling like that, for a big man, it was like: ‘What’s up with that?’ ”

Even the origins felt crazy. Embiid was a former volleyball and soccer player, discovered at a camp by Mbah a Moute in the summer of 2011. He was the son of a Cameroonian military man, Thomas Embiid, and he hailed from Yaounde, a city of almost 2 million where Mbah a Moute grew up.

He arrived in America, spent two years as a relative unknown in high school circles, and suddenly was the best college center in America — a potential No. 1 overall pick.

“A good surprise,” Thomas Embiid said earlier this year, after visiting his son at Kansas.

How do you explain it? How can a 17-year-old volleyball player from Africa become the world’s best amateur basketball prospect in three years? How can he dominate the Big 12, turn pro after one season and be the presumptive No. 1 pick, surpassing anointed teammate Andrew Wiggins? How can the stories be true?

“He can be a franchise center,” Self said.

The stories about Embiid have always felt half-real, a little wink-wink, an extension of a joyful personality. He once killed a lion, but he lacks a driver’s license. He chugs pink lemonade by the barrel. He raps in French.

It all seemed too easy, too perfect, too natural. Maybe now we know why. On Friday morning, Embiid underwent surgery for a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his right foot, an alarming procedure for a young 7-foot center. Just three months after suffering a stress fracture in his lower back, Embiid’s body is breaking down again, threatening to delay his development and damage his draft stock.

He could be the next elite center in the NBA, the heir to Olajuwon and Howard. He could also be the next cautionary tale, the heir to Bowie and Oden. The NBA Draft is just four days away, and the question remains.

Is Joel Embiid too good to be true?

This is a story about Joel Embiid, the lion killer.

It was late last summer, and the Kansas basketball team had gathered in the locker room for a post-workout tradition. The exercise was called “Thursday Vibes,” and it was pretty simple. The players would go around the circle, sharing secrets and stories. It was meant to be a team-building exercise, and Embiid, who had arrived on campus earlier that summer, was up next.

The story came together quickly: Embiid had killed a lion back in Cameroon.

“It wasn’t the king of the jungle,” Tharpe recalled. “It was like a nice-sized lion, and he said he killed it.”

On that day, the story began.

“JoJo killed a lion,” Tharpe said. “We weren’t going to question the man.”

The only problem: Like a creation myth that keeps changing, becoming more exaggerated each time, Embiid’s story kept evolving.

“First he told us this big lie about him and his tribe,” former teammate Niko Roberts said. “He had to go through this ‘becoming a man’ process. And he had to kill a lion with his bare hands. Then he tells us it was with a spear. Then the next time he might have shot the lion.”

“I don’t know,” Roberts continued, smiling. “He was just the biggest liar on the team.”

There were other cracks in the story. Embiid had grown up in the bustling city of Yaounde. His father, Thomas, a former handball player, had raised his two kids on a comfortable military salary. Young Joel took to soccer, enjoying the rhythms of the game.

“I should have been a goalkeeper,” Embiid said, upon arriving at Kansas. “But I was a midfielder.”

He never killed a lion, but he did dream of becoming one — an indomitable lion, the nickname of the Cameroon national soccer team.

But then he found basketball.

After arriving in the United States in 2011, he spent one season at Montverde Academy in Florida before transferring to The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., to seek more playing time. During his days at The Rock, he would still play pickup soccer during lunch, but the focus was now on basketball. The game came easily to him.

On one of the first days of practice, Justin Harden, the head coach at The Rock, began to install a set play to get his team into its motion offense. He instructed Embiid to do a dribble handoff at the top of the key, but instead of giving the ball up, he instinctively slipped through two defenders and attacked the lane.

“And that’s an option also,” Harden called out. “He was an abstract thinker. He could see it.”

This is a story about Joel Embiid, the pink-lemonade fiend.

On a chilly winter afternoon in February, Embiid quietly walked into a mostly empty media room at Allen Fieldhouse. His 7-foot frame moved slowly, ducking through a door frame. His body was already starting to betray him. His balky back had sidelined him during a 30-point victory over TCU on Feb. 15, and a sprained knee had robbed him of some mobility.

In just days, he would smash onto the floor at Oklahoma State, and Kansas’ training staff would detect a stress fracture in his spine. But on this day, Embiid simply slipped into the media room for a sugar fix.

He opened a refrigerator stocked with soft drinks and pulled out a pink lemonade. Of all the American ideals to fall in love with, Embiid fell hardest for pink lemonade — the bottled kind. In the moments after games, he would head to the refrigerator at the back of the media room and shovel bottles into his arms, like a child with a night full of Halloween loot. He drank it by the gallon, and the KU coaches and staffers always scolded him about his sugar intake.

It wasn’t just the lemonade. He was always gorging on cookies, inhaling brownies or crushing the stash of candy his father brought from Cameroon.

He laughed when the subject came up. But the lessons about his diet began to take hold.

If you’re going to be a great one, you can’t be drinking five bottles of pink lemonade after every practice. If you’re going to be a great one, you have to stay focused to the little details. If you’re going to be great, you have to mature, you have to grow, you have to listen.

Above all, Self says, Embiid wanted to listen.

“There were days where the coaches got on him pretty good,” teammate Hunter Mickelson said. “But he needed it.”

Even by late February, it had been a long season. There was the weight of expectations, the four nonconference losses, and a head coach who seemed more stressed than usual. When the season began, the story had been Andrew Wiggins, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. But by late February, some of that hype — some of those expectations — had transferred onto the ailing back of Embiid.

It felt heavy. It felt a little awkward. But to Embiid, it also felt good. Just a week earlier, a Sports Illustrated reporter had come to town to write a story about Embiid’s amazing ascendance. His lion-killing exploits had rippled through the Twittersphere, turning into an actual marketing line from the KU athletic department: #jojokilledalion. His NBA future dominated conversations, but Embiid was still unsure.

“He wanted to come back,” Self would say later. “If college was paying $5 million a year, and the NBA was paying $5 million a year, there’s no question what he would have done.”

As Embiid pulled a pink lemonade from the fridge on that day in February, be tugged on his warm-ups and adjusted a backpack. He looked like a college kid, big dreams and simple naivety, a future lottery pick dropped from the sky. He also looked a little gimpy.

“You getting tired of all this attention?” a reporter asked.

“Yeah,” Embiid said. “A little bit.”

This is a story about Joel Embiid, possible car-pool member.

By now the story has been told many times. By mid-January, Embiid was beginning to shoot up draft boards after a dominating performance at Iowa State. On the road against a top-10 team, Embiid finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in just 28 minutes.

On the first day Embiid arrived on campus last summer, Self had told him he would be the No. 1 pick some day. But it looked as if that day might be coming sooner than expected.

“I told him he’d be the No. 1 pick when he left here,” Self says. “I just didn’t think it could be this year.”

So as the season progressed, Self and Embiid began to have more informal discussions about his future. That’s when Embiid asked Self:

Shouldn’t I learn how to drive before I go to the NBA?

Nearly six months later, Embiid has held onto the naiveté that charmed Self and the other coaches at Kansas. But he’s still waiting to master cruise control and what the oil light means. After declaring for the draft in April, Embiid showed Self a photo of his dream car — the one he was thinking about buying with his NBA millions.

Self laughed.

“You know, Joel,” Self recalled saying. “Maybe you should get your license before you spend $130,000 on a car.”

This is reality.

On Thursday afternoon, the day before he was set to have surgery to repair the fractured navicular bone in his right foot, Joel Embiid went to the golf course.

We know this because Embiid wanted us to know.

“Playing golf in this beautiful and sunny day,” Embiid posted on his Instagram account, along with a photo of a very long putter. The next day, Embiid snapped a selfie of himself in a hospital gown before he headed into surgery. (“It’s time…” he wrote.)

Embiid had two screws inserted into his right foot, and he will need four to six months to recover. Before the injury, Embiid was poised to go No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now he faces an uncertain future.

The injury could cost him millions — the difference in rookie salary between the No. 1 pick and No. 4 pick is close to $4 million over three years. And it could cost him more.

Former NBA centers Bill Walton and Yao Ming both suffered the same injury and faced shortened NBA careers; other players, such as former Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Michael Jordan fractured the navicular bone and went on to long, injury-free careers.

“I think Joel is in for a fight,” Self said, even before the injury. “But I think it’s going to be a fun fight.”

The sheen of myth will soon be wiped away, whether through injury or exposure. Embiid is no longer the 7-foot unknown, dropped from the heavens to become a lottery pick. He is now a 7-foot injury risk, the worst tag for a prospective NBA big man.

Back in Milwaukee, Mike Lee has followed Embiid from afar, especially now that the hometown Bucks will draft No. 2 overall and could have an opportunity to draft his former pupil. Embiid spent just two months in Milwaukee, working out and developing his game.

On some days, Embiid took the Milwaukee city bus to make sure he got to the gym. More than the basketball, Lee remembered a quiet kid who always seemed appreciative of the help. He asked questions, he worked hard, and when the workout was over, he always said ‘Thank you.’

“Kids like that don’t come around that often,” Lee said. “He really did seem too good to be true.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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