The Evolution of Joel Embiid from Project to Top 2014 NBA Draft Prospect

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 21, 2014

AP Images

It wasn't long ago Joel Embiid was considered an afterthought to Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker on the NBA-draft front. It actually wasn't even that long ago Embiid was playing soccer and volleyball in Cameroon. 

A few weeks into conference play, it's Embiid who has taken the country by storm by establishing himself as the field's ultimate treasure. 

It's pretty wild to think that his first team-basketball experience came at 16 years old. Three years later, he's crushing Big-12 competition. Imagine that. 

Embiid has evolved from a raw, inexperienced newcomer to the top prospect on the planet in an extremely short span—and his progression has been awfully fun to watch. 

We'll start the timeline back to early 2013, when Embiid took part in showcase events that featured the top prospects worldwide. He immediately stood out at the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn, where he blocked five shots and grabbed seven boards in 19 minutes of action. But he shot only 1-of-6 from the floor, and though you could see he had the footwork and moves, his delivery lacked fluidity. 

He didn't show much offensively at the Nike Hoops Summit later in the month, but again, this was a kid who barely knew the game playing against lifetime ballers like Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon. 

You viewed Embiid as a raw-yet-talented 7-footer—a project with untapped potential based on extraordinary two-way physical tools and promising offensive flashes. He had established his ceiling, and it was exceptionally high, only nobody could have guessed how quickly the elevator would start to ascend. 

November 2013

Fast-forward to November 2013, when Embiid started his freshman season coming off Kansas' bench. 

vs. UL Monroe111-250.0%940
vs. Duke201-425.0%271
vs. Iona267-7100.0%16132
vs. Towson194-580.0%883
vs. Wake Forest154-666.7%1063
vs. Villanova124-666.7%1050
vs. UTEP214-757.1%967

Embiid was active, productive and efficient in November, despite playing only 17.7 minutes a game. 

He also wasn't the primary focus of every defensive game plan, and he wasn't commanding routine double-teams. 

Embiid took that opportunity and ran with it by continuously schooling opposing big men one-on-one in the post:

via Dawk Ins

Along with the alley-oops, monster dunks, cupcake layups and the "gimme" blocks on defense, Embiid would flash an eye-opening post move roughly once a game. 

But despite these flashes of tremendous upside, they were only flashes as opposed to steady occurrences. With December approaching, guys like Wiggins and Parker were considered the more "sure things," while the term "raw" still hovered over Embiid's game. 

Turning Point: Kansas at Colorado, December 7

Though Kansas would end up losing this game, Embiid's showing in the first half against Colorado would ultimately act as a turning point for him individually. 

Senior Tarik Black would get the start here, only he didn't last very long. After two quick fouls within the first three minutes, Embiid was the first one off the bench. And he went straight to work. 

Kansas immediately featured Embiid in the post on his first offensive possession of the game. He didn't disappoint, converting his first touch on a picturesque jump hook in the middle of the lane:

From there, Kansas continued looking for him. A few possessions later, freshman guard Frank Mason fed Embiid an entry pass at the rim, which the big man turned into a three-point play.

Embiid then sprinkled in another jump hook, only this one came with his left hand over his right shoulder.

via ESPN

Colorado would come out in the second half focused on slowing down Embiid.

They began packing the paint by throwing an extra defender down low to keep him further away from the rim. This made it tough for him to get good one-on-one position with his back to the rim. 

via ESPN

And while Embiid was pretty quiet in the second half, the offensive threat he poses had already been established. He became the No. 1 priority of the defense, and now a top gun for Kansas' offense. 

Following the loss, coach Bill Self made Embiid his starting center against Florida. And from there, his game just took off. 

Starting with the New Mexico game on December 14, Embiid has been on a terrific run:

Games Since December 14
vs. New Mexico255-683.3%1864
vs. Georgetown214-4100.0%1781
vs. Toledo315-955.6%14103
vs. San Diego St.263-560.0%12125
at Oklahoma192-450.0%661
vs. Kansas St.195-771.4%1192
at Iowa St.287-887.5%1695
vs. Oklahoma State325-683.3%13118
vs. Baylor264-757.1%1241

Against New Mexico, we saw the infamous Dream Shake stolen straight from his idol Hakeem Olajuwon's arsenal.  

He started pulling off post moves you don't often see from college 7-footers, never mind a freshman who just started playing organized ball. 

Dream Shakes, jump hooks, drop steps, up-and-unders, sweeping hooks—you name it. Embiid started to showcase an assortment of different moves—moves that few NBA centers are capable of regularly executing.

He's even shown off an occasional jumper over the past month. He knocked down a mid-range jumper against New Mexico and one against Georgetown, while his free-throw touch started to sizzle. Since December 10, Embiid has shot 71.7 percent from the stripe, a respectable number for him at this stage in his career.

Against Kansas State on January 11, Embiid would nail his first three-pointer of the year. And that stroke looked awfully smooth and confident:

At Iowa State on January 13, Embiid would show off a different phase of his game that's evolved over the course of the season. He's become much better at handling relentless double-teams. Now that he knows they're coming, he's learned to anticipate.

There was one play that stood out against the Cyclones, and it didn't even result in a bucket or blocked shot.

It was a pass he made out of the post. Embiid saw the double coming a mile away, so he stepped back, surveyed the floor and fired a one-handed bullet to his man the defense left open:

Embiid has started to make teams pay for doubling him down low, and you can credit that to his ability to adapt and adjust. 

But it wasn't until Embiid's near triple-double against Oklahoma State on January 18 that the hype machine really began pumping. He finished with a season-high eight blocks to go with 13 points and 11 boards. 

When speaking with Embiid recently, ESPN's Dana O'Neil mentioned how coach Bill Self said he wasn't initially a great shot-blocker to start the year.

When she asked what had changed, Embiid told her: "Just by watching those videos," referring to tapes of Jeff Withey, Kansas' center and leading shot-blocker in 2012-13. "I learned from Jeff, jump straight up, and just block the shot and don't swing with my arms, just stay straight up."

Earlier in the year, you'd occasionally see Embiid seemingly try and rip his opponent's head off with a wild defensive swipe. 

Check out this foul that shows Embiid's monstrous arm coming down and breaking the invisible plane. 

That Jeff Withey game tape apparently has been helpful, as Embiid is developing into a shot-blocking machine and overwhelming interior presence. He single-handedly changed the game against Oklahoma State by shrinking the size of the hoop he was defending and preventing any easy buckets in the half court. 

At this point in the year, it's still fair to consider Embiid a project, since there's so much more for him to learn and eventually add. But 99 percent of projects aren't this good this early.

Offensively, he could still use some more polish on his post game, and developing that jumper wouldn't be a bad idea. Defensively, he has to learn how to defend without committing a foul, and that changing a shot can be equally as effective as blocking it. But this is all just a part of the process. Everything Embiid must work on seems to be well within his reach. 

He's taking over games now, yet Embiid's sales pitch to NBA teams still remains centered around his long-term potential. We're talking about an immediate solution and future centerpiece at a position that's tough to fill with this type of talent. 

Over the past two months, Embiid has made a two-way impact that no other prospect is capable of making. And that's what's driving his stock towards can't-miss No. 1-overall status. 

Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker are going to be great pros one day. But based on how quickly Embiid has evolved into a dominant anchor in the middle, along with the room he still has left to grow, I'm not looking anywhere else but at the 7-foot Cameroonian with the first pick of the draft. 


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