As the whistle blew, and the ball trickled toward the baseline, Joel Embiid took a step forward.
This was on Wednesday night, in the final minutes of No. 6 Kansas’ victory over Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse. All around the court, the players had stopped. KU freshman Wayne Selden had drawn a foul along the baseline, and the ball was left spinning toward Embiid, KU’s 7-foot freshman.
Embiid kicked the ball upward with his right foot, juggled it to his left, bounced it off his right thigh, and then controlled it with his left. The whole act took about three seconds, and for a freshman who grew up playing soccer in his native Cameroon, it was all instinct.
“He does things in practice,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “the ball will be bouncing and he’ll kick the ball to me by doing some soccer move — things 7-footers can’t do.”
At certain moments, it does seem as though Embiid can do whatever he wants on a basketball court. His blend of size and coordination can seem unfair, like he’s working on a master’s in post play after just a few months of college. But if there’s one noticeable flaw in Embiid’s game, it is this: He can rack up turnovers at the same rapid-fire rate that he can chug pink lemonade — his favorite American drink.
(The KU staff is always running out of the pink stuff.)
Embiid leads Kansas with 46 turnovers, and the trend has worsened during Big 12 play. In seven conference games, Embiid has turned it over 23 times. For a player shooting 65 percent from the floor, it’s about the only thing limiting his efficiency.
“He’s had some turnovers,” Self said, “but he’s a terrific passer. He sees it. Sometimes he’s just not strong enough to finish it. But he’s got great vision.”
So this is the next step in the evolution of Embiid. As Kansas, 16-4 and 7-0 in the Big 12, barrels toward its 10th straight Big 12 crown, Self hopes Embiid can adjust to the bigger, stronger centers he could eventually see in March.
“It’s another step for everybody,” Self said. “But a big guy, very rarely, is going to have more assists than turnovers. And certainly that’s the way it is with most bigs across America, and that’s the way it’s been with Jo.”
If the cause of Embiid’s turnovers is more rooted in strength than decision-making, then he should face another tall challenge when Kansas faces No. 25 Texas at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Austin. The Longhorns — featuring sophomore center Cameron Ridley — have one of the few frontcourt units in the Big 12 that can match bodies with KU. Ridley, a 6-foot-9, 285-pound center, should get the opportunity to body up Embiid and force him into some uncomfortable positions.
“They definitely have some big guys and (they are) pretty athletic,” sophomore forward Jamari Traylor said. “But we definitely have the same thing here. So as long as we go out there and play hard, compete and play sound, we can definitely make it happen.”
For Texas, the matchup should provide an opportunity for a statement after a 5-2 start in the Big 12. The Longhorns lost their four leading scorers off last year’s team, and Rick Barnes’ seat was understandably hot after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. Sheldon McClellan transferred to Miami. Point guard Myck Kabongo declared for the NBA Draft. And 20 games into the season, it appears that Texas emerged united after shedding some baggage.
“You can just tell that the energy is different,” Self said. “Rick’s a great coach, and last year was certainly the exception and not the rule. Every coach or every program goes through one of those every now and then.”
For now, Texas looks like a team that will be back in the NCAA Tournament. Consider the resume: Earlier this month, Kansas became the first team in 15 years to beat ranked teams in four straight games. Just a few weeks later, the Longhorns can match the feat.
“I told our guys,” Self said, “Our goal is obviously not to let that happen.”
For most of the Big 12’s existence, few teams have consistently pushed KU as often as Texas, which shared the Big 12 title with Kansas in 2006 and again in 2008. Now with Ridley anchoring the inside, the Longhorns are in solid position to challenge Kansas (and Embiid) once again.
“He’s got weight on him, and he’s gotten himself in great shape,” Self said of Ridley. “This will be a good test for our front line without question …
“I’m excited to see how Joel reacts.”