NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: Why Joel Embiid Is Still No. 1 2014 Prospect

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterFebruary 20, 2014

Feb 4, 2014; Waco, TX, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) warms up before the game against the Baylor Bears at the Ferrell Center. The Jayhawks defeated the Bears 69-52. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Hopefully that rough stretch in early February didn't have you questioning Joel Embiid's credentials as a No. 1 overall draft candidate. The big fella just needed to charge the old battery, that's all.

Embiid had been quiet for the first few games of the month—he had scored just eight points against Texas, five against Baylor and six in an overtime loss to Kansas State, without cracking the 20-minute mark in three of four games.

Embiid was visibly worn down physically, so coach Bill Self gave him a night off against TCU. Apparently that was just what the doctor ordered, because Embiid returned a few days later against Texas Tech and reminded us why many believe he's the nation's top NBA prospect.

He went for 18 points, eight boards and a block, while missing just one shot in 32 minutes. But it wasn't his box score that was so impressive, and it rarely ever is.

Possession by possession, offense to defense, Embiid controls a game simply by standing in the middle of it.

Feb 4, 2014; Waco, TX, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) during the game against the Baylor Bears at the Ferrell Center. The Jayhawks defeated the Bears 69-52. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The thing to me that separates Embiid from teammate Andrew Wiggins, and even Duke's Jabari Parker or Kentucky's Julius Randle, is that his presence alone makes teammates better.

You hear that cliche tossed around all the time, but with Embiid, you can actually see the difference he makes on a play-to-play basis, even if it doesn't result in a point, assist, board or block.

Post Presence 

We've reached the point where Embiid commands a double-team the second he gets a touch. There just isn't anyone who can match up with his 7'0" size, 7'5" wingspan and nifty offensive skill set without help.

Play him straight up, and he'll torch you with righty and lefty jump hooks, spins, shakes and an unpredictable first step:

via Kansas Athletics 

Sometimes, not even a lot of help can keep him from getting a high-percentage shot:

This is why teams can't just leave single defenders stranded one-on-one with Embiid. We just saw him spin baseline off a triple-team before wrapping around for an uncontested lefty finish.

Embiid has moves to go to and others to counter with. And as his game has expanded, so has his recognition and awareness.

There's tremendous value in having a player who consistently forces a team double-down in the post. Double-teams equate to open shooters, driving lanes and beneficial spacing for everyone.

But when you have a guy who can handle the pressure, see over it and fire passes out of it, you've got yourself one dangerous offensive weapon.

Against Texas Tech and dozens of other teams Kansas has played this season, Embiid used double-teams to create shots and scoring opportunities for teammates.

He's developed excellent vision and instincts as a passer out of the post—and with hands that allow him to grip the rock like a tennis ball, he can fire darts from some pretty tough angles. Trapped in the corner, Embiid manages to find a cutting guard on the opposite side of the floor and hit him in stride with a pinpoint dime:

via MSG

Back when Embiid first started generating No. 1 overall buzz, one scout told me, "The most impressive thing he did was that one-handed cross-court pass out of a double-team," referring to a pass he made against Iowa State. "That's a pass that very, very few people can make."

Based on the threat he now poses as a scorer, any touch he gets in the post practically causes an immediate defensive panic. And Embiid has learned how to capitalize on it.

They weren't all falling for Kansas against Texas Tech, but its guards and forwards got plenty of good looks as a result of their men leaving to help out on Embiid.

And Embiid was finding them. Here's an an open three for Wiggins, courtesy of Embiid's post presence:


Here's another one:


One of Wiggins' most glaring weaknesses is creating shots for himself when the game is slowed down. But when Embiid is out there commanding double-teams, all Wiggins has to do is spread the floor, and open shots will find him.

This is just one example of how Embiid can make life easier for his teammates. We've seen him do it as a passer; now we'll take a look at how he does it for a passer.

High-Percentage Target

If you're a point guard, what more could you want than a reliable target that turns the simplest of passes into assists?

Embiid is a high-percentage option on the block, one that you can feed for easy buckets all day long.

He doesn't require too many dribbles before a shot or any specific passing angle. Given his size, length and coordination, there are spots that entry passers can hit that only he can get to. And with terrific interior instincts, agility and touch, it doesn't always take a fancy move for Embiid to finish.

Just look at how quick he is after the catch, thanks to a lightning, slippery spin move that results in an open layup at the rim:

via MSG

Embiid converted six field goals against Texas Tech, and only two of them required one dribble before he was able to go up with his shot.

He's shooting 62.3 percent from the floor and 75.9 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math. Embiid makes his passers better by giving them a gigantic target to throw to, one that's constantly in high-percentage scoring position.

One-Man Defensive Backup Unit 

Embiid doesn't just guard a man—he protects the rim. And if a teammate gets beat, he's usually there to back him up.

Around the rim, he's the equivalent of one of those windmills that rotates in front of a miniature golf hole to pose as an obstacle for putters.

Embiid has the ability to shrink the size of the rim he's defending thanks to those long, aggressive and disruptive arms that are constantly in motion.

Even if he's not blocking shots, he's changing or challenging them.

Though his teammate Wiggins is an excellent defender on the wing, he's just not capable of making the same defensive impact that Embiid can patrolling the paint.

Margin for Error

With Embiid under the basket, he gives the rest of the team a wider margin for offensive error.

He's ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding rate—he brings in 2.3 in only 22.7 minutes a game.

Embiid's presence actually helps turn misses, particularly off drives, into high-percentage scoring opportunities. He covers an insane amount of ground and airspace at the hoop, so when a defense collapses to contest a penetrator, Embiid is always in position (even when he's not) to clean up a mess.

He essentially turns 50-50 balls into 60-40 ones in his favor.

Down one with around 30 seconds to go, Wiggins misses a baseline drive, which is then cleaned up and put back for an easy two by Embiid:

via MSG

He just takes up so much space on the interior that loose balls tend to find him.

It's not just his post game and shot-blocking skills that drive his appeal as a prospect—it's how they affect his teammates by making their jobs easier to perform.

Wiggins, Parker, Randle—they're going to be standout NBA players one day. But none of them can potentially impact a game from as many cylinders as Embiid.

2014 NBA Draft Big Board
1Joel EmbiidKansasCFreshman
2Jabari ParkerDukeSF/PFFreshman
3Andrew WigginsKansasSFFreshman
4Dante ExumAustraliaPG/SG1995
5Noah VonlehIndianaPF/CFreshman
6Julius RandleKentuckyPFFreshman
7Tyler EnnisSyracusePGFreshman
8Marcus SmartOklahoma StatePG/SGSophomore
9Rodney HoodDukeSFSophomore
10Gary HarrisMichigan StateSGSophomore
11James YoungKentuckySFFreshman
12Willie Cauley-SteinKentuckyCSophomore
13Zach LaVineUCLAPG/SGFreshman
14P.J. HairstonTexas LegendsSGJunior
15Dario SaricCroatiaSF/PF1994
16Doug McDermottCreightonSFSenior
17Adreian PayneMichigan StatePFSenior
18Nik StauskasMichiganSGSophomore
19Jerami GrantSyracuseSF/PFSophomore
20Aaron GordonArizonaSF/PFFreshman
21Jordan ClarksonMissouriPG/SGJunior
22T.J. WarrenNorth Carolina StateSFSophomore
23Montrezl HarrellLouisvillePFSophomore
24Wayne SeldenKansasSGFreshman
25Jabari BrownKansasSGJunior
26Glenn Robinson IIIMichiganSFSophomore
27Clint CapelaSwitzerlandPF/C1994
28K.J. McDanielsClemsonSFJunior
29Shabazz NapierConnecticutPGSenior
30C.J. WilcoxWashingtonSGSenior
Bleacher Report

Heatin' Up

Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette, 6'3", PG, Junior

Payton just might be the No. 1 most under-the-radar prospect in the county. He's putting up ridiculous numbers—19.9 points, six boards and 5.9 assists a game through Wednesday.

Over his last two games, Payton totaled 45 points, 16 boards, 13 assists, eight steals and four blocks on 16-of-24 shooting.

He was a member of the United States FIBA World Championship team that won gold this summer, and that experience may have played a role in his progression as a junior.

At 6'3", Payton has excellent size and athleticism for the position, and he's a nifty scorer and playmaker off the dribble. If only he could shoot—Payton has made just eight threes all year, and despite his ability to get to the line (an incredible 9.5 times a game), he's never shot more than 65 percent in a season.

Nov 15, 2013; Fayetteville, Ar, USA; Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns guard Elfrid Payton (2) drives toward the basket during the second half of a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena Arena. Arkansas defeated Louisiana-Lafayette 76-63
Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Doug McDermott, Creighton, 6'8", SF, Senior

It's never a surprise to see him go off, but this is just ridiculous: Doug McDermott dropped 39 points on four missed shots in a win over Villanova, and he followed with 25 on three missed shots in a win over Marquette.

At this point, McDermott has seemingly mastered the college game. Villanova was the No. 6 team in the country, and he absolutely toyed with it.

If McDermott can convince an NBA team he's not a defensive liability, one of them is bound to bite late in the lottery.

Coolin' Off

Glenn Robinson III, Michigan, 6'6", SF, Sophomore

Blame it on his lack of assertiveness or the system he plays in, but Glenn Robinson III just hasn't been able to stand out. He's a non-factor in way too many games, including a couple recent losses where he was borderline invisible.

He finished with nine points and four boards in a loss to Indiana, two points and four rebounds in one to Iowa and 10 and three in a loss to Wisconsin.

There are too many good athletes out there—athleticism just can't be your core strength after two years in college. Robinson's stock has cooled off this season, and another year at Michigan probably wouldn't be a bad idea.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Zach LaVine, UCLA, 6'5", PG/SG, Freshman 

After the hot start, LaVine has really cooled off in terms of efficiency and production. He's now gone seven straight games without hitting double digits in scoring, as he's just 9-of-40 during the stretch. But despite the slump, LaVine has already flashed his upside—he's an electric athlete at 6'5" who can handle the ball and shoot it (his three-point percentage remains intact at 42.6 percent).

LaVine needs another year at UCLA to develop, but given the buzz surrounding his potential, he might be able to sell the NBA on it as a one-and-done project.

Update Abroad

Dante Exum, Australia, 6'6", PG/SG, born 1995

Exum has finally made it to Los Angeles, where he'll be training for the 2014 NBA draft as a projected top-five pick. And now things are about to change.

"A couple years ago, I didn't think I could get this much exposure, and so to be put in this situation is definitely surreal," Exum told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling. "School groups come (to Australia Institute of Sport) and are like, 'That's Dante!' But I'm just a normal guy; I'm just doing what I love. I'm starting to get used to it, but it's still surprising to me—people calling out my name."

Exum is really a one-of-a-kind prospect as an ultra-athletic, scoring point guard at 6'6". If college basketball's top prospects begin fizzling down the stretch, don't be surprised to hear Exum's name tossed into the No. 1 overall conversation.

Vasilije Micic, Mega Vizura, 6'5", PG, born 1994

Micic, the crafty Serbian point guard, recently led Mega Vizura to a big-time win over Dario Saric's Cibona, finishing the game with 18 points and eight assists.

At just 20 years old, Micic has his team in third place in the Adriatic League, where he's No. 3 overall in assists.

Micic hasn't announced whether he'll declare after the season, but now draft eligible, it's something many expect him to do.

Fourth-Quarter Thoughts

  • If you haven't gotten a chance to see Utah point guard Delon Wright, take the next opportunity you get. He's averaging 16 points, 6.7 boards and 5.3 assists per game, and though he can't shoot yet, Wright, 6'5", looks like he certainly has first-round potential. I'd consider him a breakout prospect in 2014-15.
  • Kansas' Andrew Wiggins has played with more aggression as of late, and despite the inconsistency, he's at least been able to show how unstoppable he can be attacking the rim. I've still got Embiid at No. 1, but Wiggins appears to be reentering the conversation.
  • Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon recently fouled out with just over eight minutes left of regulation against Utah in what turned out to be an overtime win for the Wildcats. But Gordon finished with just three points, the fourth time in his last six games he's finished in single digits. He'll likely answer the NBA call, but he clearly needs another year to establish an identity for himself as a forward.


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