Andrew Wiggins was declared the king of the 2014 NBA Draft (and therefore of college basketball) before he had even played a minute for the Kansas Jayhawks. But for every second that he occupies that throne, there is a critic searching for a chink in his armor and a challenger looking to take his place.
In the words of Omar Little from The Wire, “if you come at the king, you best not miss.”
Joel Embiid hasn’t missed.
Wiggins was the most talked about high-school player since LeBron James. He was labeled a “can’t-miss” prospect and viewed as a “lock” to go No. 1 in the 2014 NBA Draft. But with all that hype comes plenty of scouts inspecting the wares with a microscope searching for flaws.
It didn’t take long for Jabari Parker to thrust himself into the discussion since Parker pops on film in a way that Wiggins has yet to do for an entire game.
The momentum started with Parker’s dominant performance when he went head-to-head against Wiggins. That momentum has been building since that point, culminating in some experts feeling comfortable putting Parker first on their draft boards.
The Duke freshman has certainly been phenomenal, doing it all and emerging as a leader for the Blue Devils despite his age and inexperience. But, despite being the best freshman in the nation right now, Parker isn’t the biggest threat to go before Andrew Wiggins:
Jay Bilas: Jabari Parker is the best player in the freshman class, Joel Embiid is the best prospect.— Jonathan Tjarks (@JonathanTjarks) December 21, 2013
The biggest threat to Wiggins’ No. 1 aspirations is in the Kansas locker room with him.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Scouts drooling over an African big-man prospect who only started playing basketball in his mid-teens but demonstrated the potential, size and footwork to convince the aforementioned scouts that he is the real deal and can dominate the NBA.
That’s the story of Joel Embiid. It’s also the story of Hakeem Olajuwon and Hasheem Thabeet—two names that are sure to be thrown around a lot in Embiid’s bid to be drafted No. 1.
In many ways, those two NBA players might come to define Embiid’s draft journey.
Thabeet is the cautionary tale of reaching for a raw player that will never realize his true potential. Olajuwon is the tantalizing realization of that potential (not to compare Embiid to Olajuwon, who is in my mind the best all-around center in the history of the NBA).
Realistically, either comparison is unfair to all the players involved, but if we imagine them on a scale of NBA ability, Embiid is closer to Olajuwon than Thabeet. That’s why he’s a legitimate candidate to be the prize of the draft lottery—the $636 million jackpot of the NBA’s version of Mega Millions.
Who would you take with the No. 1 pick?
It starts on the defensive end. In today’s NBA that is dominated by advanced metrics and analytics, there is no commodity more rare (and therefore more valuable) than rim protection.
It’s the reason why, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe, a few NBA general managers have estimated Roy Hibbert’s annual on-court value at “around $25 million or $30 million, double his actual salary.” It’s the reason why Omer Asik is such an enticing trade target despite the fact that he has zero offensive game.
It’s also the reason why Joel Embiid is one of the most intriguing prospects of the upcoming draft and poses a real threat to go off the board first.
Embiid stands a legit 7’0” tall with a 250-pound frame that has room for more muscle and a ridiculous 7’5” wingspan. He’s still learning the fundamentals of team defense, but he’s averaging 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes in his first collegiate season and making plays like this to guard the hoop:
Even if Embiid doesn’t live up to his jaw-dropping potential, an NBA team is going to get quality rim protection from a true center with some offensive skills—an excellent floor for any draft prospect. But what if the Cameroonian freshman can live up to his potential?
The sky is the limit.
He’s a tremendous athlete who can get up and down the court in a flash thanks to his gigantic strides. The center also has shown flashes of a back-to-the-basket game in his time as a Jayhawk:
In addition to some post moves, the 7-footer has shown the ability to fight for great post position which will help him at the next level:
Joel Embiid continues to impress. He has to be a guard-throwing-an-entry-pass's dream. Gets good post position with impossibly long arms.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) December 21, 2013
Most importantly, he’s learning the nuances of the sport extremely quickly. According to B/R’s Jason King, Kansas head coach Bill Self credited Embiid’s willingness to be coached for his rapid development, saying “he’s been unbelievable as far as listening goes. We never have to tell him something twice.”
An athletic 7-footer is a rarity. An athletic 7-footer who can effectively protect the rim is gold. An athletic 7-footer who can protect the rim and shows signs of having a low-post game is worth two No. 1 picks.
And people are starting to notice what Bill Self did when he watched Embiid play for the first time (via Jason King):
“Are you frickin’ kidding me? This dude could be the No. 1 pick in the draft. He can run. He's got good feet. He's got touch. He's unbelievable. He'll be the best big man we've ever coached if we can get him. Forget all the other guys we’ve been after. That’s the guy we’ve got to get. We’ve got to get Joel."
ESPN’s Jay Bilas is one of the many college basketball fans that have been impressed with the freshman in his limited minutes:
If stock is being sold in Joel Embiid's future, I want to buy some. That kid is ridonkulously talented. Dare I say, upside?!— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) December 21, 2013
The growth in Embiid’s game—he recently earned a spot in the starting lineup—has made waves in the NBA draft world too.
ESPN draft expert Chad Ford said he’s “not sure there’s a player in this draft who could be more dominant if he lived up to his potential.”
There are plenty of big-men busts that never took the next step in their development, and some scouts will use that as an excuse to push Embiid behind Wiggins and Parker and the rest of the loaded class of 2014. But we’re watching Embiid take the next step right before our very eyes.
Right now, he’s shown enough potential to make him a contender for the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. If he continues to develop at this rate, he’ll be a no-brainer. Joel Embiid is gunning for that top spot, and there may be nothing Wiggins can do to prevent it from happening.