AMES, Iowa — The credential requests began filling the mailbox months ago, when a handful of NBA scouts made plans to watch the No. 1 prospect in America play for Kansas in a game against Iowa State.
The night finally came and went Monday in Ames, and after the final horn sounded in KU’s 77-70 victory, front-office types such as Chicago’s John Paxson and Gar Forman couldn’t have been disappointed.
But they may have been a bit surprised.
The best pro prospect in the nation was definitely roaming the Hilton Coliseum court in a Jayhawks uniform, but it wasn’t Andrew Wiggins, the Kansas freshman who, ridiculously, drew comparisons to LeBron James before ever playing a college game.
For nearly a year, it was treated as a forgone conclusion that Wiggins would be the top overall selection in this summer’s NBA draft. But now the narrative has changed. The quest to become the No. 1 overall pick is suddenly a multi-person affair, and Wiggins’ biggest threat appears to be his own teammate.
Seven-foot center Joel Embiid.
“I think Embiid is the best player in the country,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.
That’s a bit of a stretch.
Embiid, who averages 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds, isn’t the top player in the nation. If the season ended today, he probably wouldn’t even make third-team All-American.
When it comes to pro potential, though, Embiid is the best NBA prospect in college basketball. And after watching Embiid score 16 points, grab nine rebounds and block five shots Monday, I can’t fathom how any team would pass on Embiid with the No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s draft.
That’s certainly not a knock on Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker or Kentucky’s Julius Randle, all of whom are top-five-caliber picks. But none of them excite me as much as Embiid, whose talent and upside is unlike anything we’ve seen from a frontcourt player in years.
Just ask Hoiberg, a former NBA standout and executive before becoming Iowa State’s head coach in 2010.
“He’s huge and has a great length,” Hoiberg said. “He can shoot and has incredible footwork.”
And then, the kicker.
“He’s only been playing the game about two years,” Hoiberg said.
That’s what makes Embiid so fascinating. A native of the African country of Cameroon, Embiid hadn’t played organized basketball until the summer before his junior season of high school, when he was discovered at a camp hosted by Cameroon native and ex-UCLA star Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Now a forward with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, Mbah a Moute became a mentor to Embiid and encouraged him to move to America to enhance his game at a prep school before entering college. Embiid listened and, just two years later, he’s blossoming for one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country.
Even Wiggins can’t believe it.
“It’s crazy,” Wiggins said. “I remember playing him last year in high school. Seeing him now, it’s crazy. He’s only been playing basketball two years. To be this good and this dominant (already)...that’s something special.”
Embiid, who weighs 250 pounds, is so much more than just a lanky center with long arms. He’s already developed into a tremendous distributor—especially on outlet passes—and runs the court like a guard. Embiid has a nice touch away from the basket, and the quick, nimble feet that helped him excel on the soccer fields of Cameroon are benefiting him even more on the hardwood.
On numerous occasions Monday, he faked out his defender with spins and pivots that would make his idol, Hakeem Olajuwon, proud.
“His footwork is incredible for a 7-footer that’s just figuring out how to play,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I haven’t seen many guys that are that agile and that quick with their first step like he is.”
Self also praised Embiid’s “natural feel” for basketball, doting on how quickly he’s adapting to the X’s and O’s of the game and on how much time he spends in the film room.
All of it is resulting in an increased comfort level for Embiid, who laughed and clapped all the way down the court after blocking a shot by Iowa State’s Dustin Hogue on Monday.
Pestered by Embiid both in the paint and on the perimeter, Iowa State shot just 31.4 percent from the field and missed 21 of its 25 attempts from three-point range. Even when Embiid wasn’t altering shots with his arms, his presence alone was enough to rattle the Cyclones, who seemed to have the yips from start to finish.
“We were in there missing layups that we normally make,” Hoiberg said. “(Maybe) we were looking around for the big fella, who was really the first true rim-protector that we’ve faced.”
Embiid’s performance Monday wasn’t 100 percent positive. He had just four points in the first half and received a technical foul—his second in as many games—for tussling with Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane under the basket. He also finished with a game-high seven turnovers, one less than the entire Iowa State team. Self said he told Embiid during intermission that he wasn’t playing tough and challenged him to step up his game.
“He told me to stay aggressive,” Embiid said. “The past two games I haven’t played well. I knew I had to play well for us to win. The second half I changed my mindset. I got aggressive and scored the ball.”
When that started happening, the cold-shooting Cyclones didn’t have much of a chance, as Embiid always seemed to come up with a big bucket or block to thwart Iowa State’s momentum. During one stretch, Embiid scored eight points during a 10-3 run that left the Jayhawks ahead 66-54.
“In the second half, it was obvious,” Self said. “He felt like it was his game down there.”
As much as he appreciated the kind words from a rival coach, Self disagreed with Hoiberg that Embiid was the best player in the country.
“He’s not even close to being the rim-protector that he could be,” Self said. “He’s not close to being the passer out of double-teams that he could be. His hands have to get stronger, and he’s inconsistent. I think he’d be the first to admit that.”
Self paused and smiled.
“But he’s terrific,” Self said. “I mean, he’s terrific. He’s got an unbelievable mind as far as basketball IQ. And there’s no question he’s an unbelievable talent. He’s got a long way to go to be great.
“But he’s got all the tools to be special.”
So, too, does Wiggins, who had one of the best performances of his young career with 17 points, 19 rebounds and three assists. At this point, no one would be surprised if the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in this summer’s NBA draft were Embiid and Wiggins.
In that order.