Add Kansas center Joel Embiid to the growing list of up-and-coming stars who like college just enough to make lottery-bound NBA teams sweat.
According to ESPN's Jeff Goodman, who was in Waco for the Jayhawks' 69-52 win over Baylor on Feb. 4, Embiid said he doesn't feel his game is ready for the rigors of the NBA at the moment. While couching his thoughts under the guise that his ultimate decision depends on how the rest of the season goes, the 7-footer was clear that his focus was in Lawrence—not on where the ping-pong balls lie.
"I'm not even thinking about it right now," Embiid said. "I'll make a decision after the season, but I'm definitely considering coming back to school."
Most (correctly) assume that highly touted players are going to college merely because NBA rules dictate they do so, but Embiid is the second likely lottery pick in the past couple weeks whose future was thrown into doubt.
Sam Smith of Bulls.com reported last month there is a growing sentiment among league executives that Duke forward Jabari Parker will return for his sophomore season. Parker is close with incoming recruit Jahlil Okafor, comes from a financially stable family and has not been as explicit with his desires as Kansas' Andrew Wiggins.
Goodman noted on the ESPN broadcast that Embiid is in a somewhat similar place, with his family not desperate for money in his native Cameroon.
Embiid also has just three years of basketball experience under his belt after picking up the game on a whim and going through an intense, whirlwind period that saw him go from unheralded high school player to a 5-star recruit. You could understand Embiid wanting to get his bearings and settle down for a bit.
"He's a bright young man and he's going to weigh his options," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "He's considering coming back and he's obviously also considering leaving. He can't make a bad decision."
Yet, it's far easier for Parker or Embiid to consider staying in February than it will be after the season. Both players are virtual locks to be selected in the top five, and Embiid seems to be tightening his grip on the No. 1 overall pick.
Embiid, who has shot just 4-of-15 over his past two games, is far from a finished product, but he has the potential to be a decade-long franchise cornerstone.
Equipped with quick, agile feet and a series of developing post moves, Embiid has garnered multiple comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon since arriving in Lawrence. That's obviously patently unfair—Olajuwon is one of the dozen or so best players in NBA history—but it speaks to how quickly Embiid has picked up the game and the level of respect scouts and league executives have for his development.
ESPN's Chad Ford, who like many had Wiggins cemented as the No. 1 pick before the season, has moved Embiid ahead of his teammate on his big board (subscription required). League executives told Goodman that Embiid would be the No. 1 pick if he declared. As a personal aside, I've also relented on my long-standing belief that Wiggins was the draft's top player and recently moved him behind Embiid.
In other words, let's not kid ourselves here. Very few players, when put in the position to answer a straightforward question, are going to unequivocally tell anyone they're leaving at this point. Not only would it be a distraction to teammates and become a national story all its own, it would also shorten the fuse for fans in face of any potential struggles.
With someone as raw as Embiid, those struggles, as we saw Tuesday night, are coming. So while it's possible Embiid turns down the guaranteed millions to return to Lawrence, everyone should wait a couple of months and then ask the same question.
Something tells me, with the prospect of being the No. 1 pick, his answer might sound a little different.
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