Andrew Wiggins is the sort of 18-year-old kid who relishes a defensive challenge. He is 6 feet 8 with a 40-inch vertical and freakishly long arms. So in most cases, there’s not a player that Wiggins couldn’t guard.
This is the player, after all, who begged Kansas coach Bill Self to let him guard Duke star Jabari Parker during the Jayhawks’ victory over the Blue Devils earlier this season. And when Self said no? No problem. Wiggins just switched onto Parker on his own.
So this is the context for late last week. It was a Friday morning in Lawrence, a few minutes before another KU practice, and Wiggins was asked whether he’d ever tried to guard 7-foot teammate Joel Embiid during practice.
Wiggins shook his head. That was a no.
“He’s too big,” Wiggins said, flashing a subtle smile. “Even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. He’s 7 foot. He’s longer than me, he’s stronger than me and he has a bunch of post moves. He’s so skilled. So I wouldn’t.”
Wiggins is a smart kid, of course, and his reticence to body up Embiid at practice is probably a solid move. More and more, it’s the same sentiment being shared by opponents across the country.
“He just has so many different moves,” says KU redshirt freshman forward Landen Lucas, who does get the honor of guarding Embiid in practice. “And his steps are so big. He can keep one pivot foot and still get from one block to the other.”
Maybe you saw the “Dream Shake” move that Embiid pulled off in a win over New Mexico. Maybe you saw the 15-foot jumper that Embiid is employing with increasing regularity. Those are the moves, Lucas says, that KU players see every day in practice. But now, after 11 college games, Embiid is beginning to show glimpses of his entire offensive arsenal.
After scoring 17 points on four-of-four shooting in Kansas’ 86-64 victory over Georgetown on Saturday, Embiid is now averaging 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds during his freshman season. He is shooting 68 percent from the field and nearly 71 percent on two-point field goals. (Despite being 7 feet and having played organized basketball for just three seasons, Embiid has still been confident enough to have hoisted up two threes this season.)
Against Georgetown, Embiid managed 17 points on just four shots. And it forced Self to think about Embiid’s potential on offense:
“What about if he’s taking 12 shots per game?” Self said. “So we’ve got to play through him more.”
If you listened to Self in October, it was always easy to envision Embiid taking on a larger role come conference time. Now that time is almost here. And perhaps even Self has to be surprised by Embiid’s offensive efficiency. As Embiid rockets up the NBA Draft board projections, his freshman numbers align with some of the best college centers in recent memory (See numbers below). If you adjust for playing time — and extrapolate the numbers over 40 minutes — Embiid is averaging 20.4 points and 13.1 rebounds.
So let’s look at the freshman seasons of a few other centers who would go No. 1 in the NBA Draft. In 2006-07, Ohio State’s Greg Oden averaged 21.7 points and 13.2 rebounds per 40 minutes while leading the Buckeyes to the NCAA title game. And then two seasons ago, Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis led the Wildcats to an NCAA title while averaging 17.7 points and 13 rebounds per 40 minutes.
Embiid’s sample size is still relatively small, of course, so maybe he won’t shoot 68 percent for the season. But he is also still improving at a rather rapid rate. It leads to the easy question: How good could he be in March?
“If you watch him every day, nothing surprises you,” Self said. “The kid can do anything. He’s smart, and he’s a sponge. Now, that does not translate to him playing well (all the time), not at all. He’s going to have games where he has six points and four rebounds, and he’ll have games where he gets 20 and 12, and a lot of that is just experience and knowing how to plug himself into the game.
“But when you think about gifted with hands and feet and intellect and things like that, I don’t think anything really surprises you.”
With that in mind — and with Embiid projecting as a potential lottery pick — we looked at the freshman numbers of four college centers who eventually went No. 1 in the NBA Draft: Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bogut, Greg Oden and Anthony Davis.
O’Neal stayed three seasons at LSU before making the jump to the NBA, while Bogut, an Australian, would stay two at Utah. After 11 games, Embiid’s scoring numbers (per 40 minutes) are comparable to freshman Shaq and freshman Oden, while his rebounding numbers are similar to all but Shaq, who was simply a monster on the boards even as an 18-year-old. Here are the numbers, all per 40 minutes:
•Joel Embiid, Kansas, 2013-14:
20.4 points / 13.1 rebounds / 4.4 blocks / 10.6 FGA / 68.3 FG%
•Anthony Davis, Kentucky, 2011-12:
17.7 points / 13.0 rebounds / 5.8 blocks / 10.5 FGA / 62.3 FG%
•Greg Oden, Ohio State, 2006-07:
21.7 points / 13.2 rebounds / 4.5 blocks / 13.3 FGA / 61.6 FG%
•Andrew Bogut, Utah, 2003-04:
16.4 points / 13 rebounds / 1.8 blocks / 11.6 FGA / 57.7 FG%
•Shaquille O’Neal, LSU, 1989-90:
19.8 points / 17.1 rebounds / 5.1 blocks / 13.9 FGA / 57.3 FG%