Over the past three months, Kansas center Joel Embiid has gone from being a relatively unknown freshman center to the likely No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft. His rapid ascension has been both stunning and well-deserved. Embiid is 19 years old, stands seven feet tall, weighs 250 pounds, and has the athleticism of an NBA small forward. He is the best pure center prospect since Greg Oden—and the significance of this has largely been ignored.
There are few dominant true centers in the NBA. It's rare to find a 7-footer with an overwhelming presence in the post both offensively and defensively. Embiid, though, could be exactly that kind of a player as a pro—and it makes him a particularly auspicious prospect.
The players we should be comparing Embiid to are Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. Embiid really does belong in such an exclusive club at this point. There simply have not been that many 7-footers with comparably advanced offensive and defensive skills at age 19.
That is the reason why Oden was such a big deal in 2007 and why he ended up being drafted before Kevin Durant. Oden did what Embiid is doing right now. When a 7'0" freshman can affect every phase of the college game, it’s no small thing.
Andre Drummond, in his second NBA season, is already a star center in the NBA. As a freshman at UConn he struggled significantly at times and never made the sustained impact that Embiid has made at Kansas. Drummond, despite incredibly strong physical attributes, performed poorly enough at UConn to drop to ninth in the 2012 draft. Yet he was an excellent NBA player right away. It turned out his superior size and skills just could not be properly displayed in college.
Similarly, Steven Adams struggled at Pittsburgh last year as an imposing 7-foot freshman. He dropped to 12th in the 2013 draft despite his obvious physical skills. Like Drummond, he immediately had an impact in the NBA and right now is a useful part of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s rotation as a rookie.
Drummond and Adams’ stories are much more common than Embiid’s. Skilled freshman 7-footers usually do not dominate college ball—they find the NBA an easier place to stand out. The NBA is where their physical dominance can more appropriately be utilized.
If Andre Drummond is already a borderline All-Star talent in his second year in the league, what does that mean Embiid will become a few years from now, provided he stays healthy? There are few, if any, young players in the NBA who have more potential than Embiid. Whatever NBA team lands him in June will be very fortunate.