Doug McDermott proponents may argue, but there is no one who has made himself more money during college basketball's regular season than Kansas center Joel Embiid. Entering Lawrence overshadowed by the massive cloud of Andrew Wiggins hype, Embiid has not just overcome being the second fiddle. He's relished in smashing everyone's expectations.
The Cameroonian center is seen as nothing short of an equal to Wiggins, and his immense ceiling has established Embiid as the clear-cut favorite for the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft. It's still possible that he drops down to No. 2 or maybe even No. 3 depending on how the lottery shakes out—though it would be a major mistake.
But Embiid's ascent is proof positive of just how quickly someone born to play the game can find a stronghold. Embiid did not play organized basketball until the summer before his junior year of high school. What's followed has been a three-year whirlwind, starting with a happenstance discovery by NBA forward Luc Mbah a Moute at a camp and likely culminating with a handshake with commissioner Adam Silver.
Compared by many to all-time great Hakeem Olajuwon, Embiid will have the chance to prove his acumen on college basketball's biggest stage. After winning its 10th straight regular-season conference title and going 24-9 overall, Kansas is quite possibly the No. 2 seed with the highest ceiling. When Wiggins and Embiid are both playing at peak potential, there is no team with a better wing/big combination in the nation.
The problem has been consistency. Embiid and Wiggins are both prone to frustrating disappearing acts, particularly on the offensive side. Kansas has no truly terrible losses on its schedule—even the season-ending defeat to West Virginia can be written off somewhat—but these lapses are infinitely more scrutinized in March than mid-January.
Embiid also has the looming specter of injuries creeping into the back of his mind. The seven-footer missed the Jayhawks' last four games, and he may be out through the first weekend of the tournament. Even if he's not impacting the offensive end, Embiid is a defensive anchor in the middle for Kansas, blocking just under three shots per game in only 23.1 minutes a night.
Odds are, we'll eventually see a healthy dose of Embiid in the Big Dance—100 percent or not. With that in mind, here's a quick look at some things you need to know about someone whose name will be synonymous with basketball—college and professional—over the next quarter.
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- Before engaging himself in all-out basketball mode at 16, Embiid's primary sport was volleyball. I have a feeling he didn't have any trouble spiking the ball. Gym class with Embiid must have been horrible.
- Embiid has taken five three-pointers this season, making one. If we ever reach a point where players of Embiid's ilk are knocking down long-range jumpers, please note that we have officially left Earth, been re-animated and transported into the plot of Space Jam.
- Even after traveling to the United States to finish out high school, Embiid was a slow developer. Bleacher Report's Jason King noted in December kids at the famed Montverde Academy snickered at his first practice. Embiid left Montverde before his senior season for The Rock because he was afraid about playing time. Whoops.
- Embiid is still raw with team defense concepts, but his ceiling as an anchor in the middle is already apparent. Opposing players shot just 40.6 percent against him in the post and 34.8 percent in isolation during the regular season, per Synergy Sports. Overall, he allows 0.762 points per possession, which is in the 77th percentile nationally.
- Scouts should feel nothing short of thrilled with Embiid's development into an offensive force. He shot 54.9 percent in post-ups during the regular season—an insane clip for the least efficient shot type in basketball—and has become a force on the weak-side cuts, per Synergy. Increased refinement is a must, but there are few (if any) bigs with the number of post moves Embiid already has at his disposal.
- On the flip side, he doesn't seem ready to fit in with the NBA's series if rim runs. He scored only eight points as a pick-and-roll man all season. The NBA's most prevalent play isn't really a stable of Bill Self's more rigid system, so it's possible he can be better than the numbers. Eight is just a strikingly small number.
- ESPN's Chad Ford currently lists Embiid as the No. 1 prospect for June's draft. Having watched most candidates pretty extensively this season, I'm inclined to agree. Wiggins, Embiid and Jabari Parker each have the capability to transform a franchise. Parker is the safest of the three, but Wiggins and Embiid have such rich, untapped potential that it's hard to move them out of the top two spots. Injuries are the only worry with Embiid—as they are with nearly every high-profile seven-footer.
- Joel Embiid is apparently a proponent of lottery-pick-on-lottery-pick crime:
- He also enjoys teasing Kansas fans about something that will never, ever in a bajillion years happen (at least as a player):
- Wait a minute. His middle name is Hans? Did I bury the lede here? Either way, I just spent the last 12 minutes coming up with terrible puns to make on Twitter for when Embiid blocks a shot for the next decade.
- He loves Snapchat:
Assuming Embiid able to get back on the floor, there is a ton to like with Kansas. The Jayhawks have been a top-10 offensive squad from an efficiency standpoint all season, per Ken Pomeroy, and Embiid is a stabilizing force for their defense. Couple their two-way efficiency with a schedule difficulty that dwarfs most other top-tier competitors, and Kansas seems primed for a solid run if it can get past New Mexico in the Round of 32.
That can only mean good things for Embiid. There are some scenarios in which Kansas can make a deep run without its seven-footer playing well, but not many. The defensive cratering that happened in the Jayhawks' season-ending loss to West Virginia was proof positive of how much Embiid means to this team.
Put it this way: Did anyone think it was possible for Wiggins to score 41 points and Kansas not skate to victory before this month? Didn't think so.
The only even remotely concerning thing for Embiid (minus the injuries) is foul trouble. He committed 3.4 fouls per game during the regular season, and often found himself sitting out key stretches of games due to the referee's whistle. Kansas needs his minutes creeping toward the 30s—not hanging in the low 20s during this tournament.
What's more, I'm interested to see how he handles the spotlight. During the regular season, you rarely saw Embiid pressing. His shots came within the rhythm of the offense, and he never seemed to get down whenever the ball didn't go his way. They can say otherwise, but all these players know how much stock NBA teams and pundits put into the NCAA tournament.
If you start seeing Embiid's shot total creeping into double digits—something he did not do once during the regular season—it might be best to watch that night's game tape closely. That said, nothing points toward any of those concerns coming to fruition. When Embiid is on the floor, typically only good things are happening for Kansas.
He and Wiggins are as good as they're going to get in college. We'll see starting this week whether they've ascended enough to send Kansas to its third Final Four of the Bill Self era.
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