PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — On the day he became an NBA millionaire, Joel Embiid woke up at 11:30 a.m. in the guest bedroom of agent Arn Tellem’s home. A “Get Well Soon” balloon hovered next to Embiid’s queen-sized bed, and a pair of crutches lay crisscrossed on the floor.
Thousands of miles away in luxury New York hotel suites, college basketball’s top players adjusted the bow ties on their custom-made tuxedos as they primped for Thursday’s NBA draft.
But back near Los Angeles, as he scooched off the mattress and hobbled toward the bathroom, Embiid’s main concern was protecting the puffy white cast covering his right foot.
Hours before becoming a pro on national television, Embiid took a sponge bath.
“This wasn’t how I imagined going into the NBA,” Embiid told Bleacher Report. “But I’ll take it.”
Six days removed from surgery to repair a broken navicular bone, Embiid was unable to travel to New York for Thursday’s draft. The injury, which will keep the former Kansas star off the court for at least four months, caused him to lose his status as the projected No. 1 overall pick as naysayers questioned his ability to stay healthy.
None of it, though, was enough to dampen Embiid’s spirits Thursday.
Flanked by his parents and sister in a private upstairs room, Embiid pumped his fists and smiled from ear to ear when NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced that the Philadelphia 76ers had selected him with the No. 3 overall pick.
Less than four years removed from his first game of organized basketball, the Cameroon native is now being hailed as one of the top big man prospects in recent memory. Embiid will make $11,567,300 over the next three years.
“It’s all so crazy,” Embiid said. “Thinking about how far I’ve come and how fast it’s happened...I know it’s surprised a lot of people. But it doesn’t surprise me. I know how hard I’ve worked for this—and I’m going to keep working.”
“I’m just so excited,” he said. “When I heard them call my name, I thought I was going to cry.”
Less than two weeks ago, Joel Embiid lay in a bed at the Southern California Orthopedic Institute. Standing before him was Dr. Richard Ferkel, who was holding the x-rays of Embiid’s right foot.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Ferkel said.
Embiid was told he had a stress fracture that would require surgery, but Ferkel said he had no reason to believe the problem would return after Embiid healed.
“This is minor bump in the road,” Ferkel told Embiid. “You’ll be fine.”
Ferkel inserted two screws into Embiid’s navicular bone during surgery on June 20. Along with staying off the court for the next four to six months, Ferkel told Embiid he wasn’t allowed to fly for at least 10 days, meaning he’d miss the NBA draft.
Embiid wasn’t even sure when he sustained the injury.
He wowed coaches, scouts and front-office types from Cleveland, which owned the No. 1 pick, during a June 11 workout, at one point swishing 10 straight three-pointers. The Cavaliers also put him through rigorous conditioning tests, which included running on the treadmill, to make sure the back injury that caused him to miss his final six games at Kansas was a thing of the past.
Word soon leaked that Cleveland officials were so impressed with Embiid that they were ready to make him the No. 1 pick in the June 26 draft.
The following morning, though, Embiid mentioned to one of his agents, Francois Nyam, that he was experiencing discomfort in his right foot. It was certainly nothing major, as Embiid spent time juggling a soccer ball at a Los Angeles-area park that afternoon.
The pain, though, never subsided.
“I think I twisted my ankle,” Embiid told Nyam.
Noticing swelling, Embiid went in for an x-ray, and the stress fracture was revealed.
As soon as news of Embiid’s ailment became public, the critics came out in full force. The back issues Embiid experienced at Kansas had already raised concerns about his ability to stay healthy, so a second significant injury just four months later only heightened concerns.
Some of the same analysts who praised Embiid during the season were now comparing him to former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden, a 7-footer whose career has been derailed by multiple injuries. It’s also been pointed out that ex-NBA stars such as Bill Walton and Yao Ming each saw their careers end because of the same foot injury sustained by Embiid.
“I guess I’m like the protective older brother, but yeah, it bothers me,” said Nyam, adding that it’s senseless to assume Embiid will be injury prone simply because others were.
Nyam noted that, at 250 pounds, Embiid has a different body type than the 330-pound Ming. And Walton retired 27 years ago, well before some of the advancements in modern medicine. Nyam said no one has mentioned that former NBA forwards such as Kevin McHale and Kurt Thomas enjoyed long careers after recovering from the exact same injury.
“I just hate the way people focus on the negative all the time,” Nyam said. “I always see the glass half full.”
The barbs—both in the media and on Twitter—didn’t seem to annoy Embiid, who seems certain his health won’t be an issue moving forward.
“I just take it as motivation,” Embiid said Thursday. “When I watch TV and hear people talking bad about me, I just think about how I’m going to prove them wrong. This is a business now. I’m going to be in the best shape of my life.”
Embiid said former Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins, who went No. 1 in Thursday’s draft, has been particularly supportive.
“I love him,” Embiid said. “Every time he texts, he says, ‘You’re the best. I know you’re going to bounce back. I see what nobody else gets to see. When you get to the league you’re going to kill it.’”
Still, some mock drafts predicted Embiid could slip all the way to No. 10—or lower. Overseas in Cameroon, Embiid’s mother, Christine, became concerned about her son. But any worries she may have had were put to rest when she arrived in Los Angeles this week.
“He’s confident he’ll be OK,” Christine told Bleacher Report through an interpreter Thursday. “He’s playing around and in good spirits. He just seems so happy.”
That, Embiid said, is because he understands how blessed he is to be in this position. Whether he was the first overall pick or a late first-rounder, Embiid realizes it was only three years ago when he stood in a gym at Montverde Academy in Florida, struggling to catch passes, dribbling off his foot and knowing little English after moving to the United States a few weeks earlier to learn more about the game.
Embiid was so bad that coach Kevin Boyle had to summon his veteran players and ask them to quit laughing at their new teammate.
At the time, Embiid told everyone that his goal was to be as good as NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who, like Embiid, grew up playing soccer before discovering basketball. Embiid watched tapes of Olajuwon almost daily and then tried to mimic his moves on the court.
A few months ago, Olajuwon even called Embiid and offered to help him train during future offseasons.
“I don’t even remember much of what he said,” Embiid said. “I was just so excited to be talking to my idol that I couldn’t focus on anything else. I was just like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’
"It was a big deal to me.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas compared the two players during the telecast of Thursday’s draft.
“I’m not saying he’s going to be Hakeem Olajuwon,” Bilas said, “but when you put them side by side as (college) freshmen, you can’t tell them apart.”
Apparently, the Philadelphia 76ers think so, too.
An hour before the beginning of Thursday’s NBA draft, Nyam walked into Embiid’s bedroom and clapped his hands repeatedly.
“You ready?” Nyam said, trying to pump up his client. “It’s about that time. Things are gonna get hyped!”
Embiid, who was playing FIFA 14 on PlayStation 4, was stone-faced.
“Please be quiet,” he said. “I’m meditating.”
Then Embiid cracked a smile, and both men broke out in laughter.
If Embiid was nervous before Thursday’s draft, he certainly didn’t show it. Aside from the small gathering of friends and members of his representation at Tellem’s house, the whole afternoon and evening seemed rather, well...ordinary.
That should come as no surprise to those close to Embiid, whose down-to-earth nature and lack of ego are as impressive as his footwork and soft shooting touch.
An ESPN camera crew was on hand to film Embiid’s reaction when he was selected. Because of a tape delay, viewers saw Embiid with a blank expression after Silver announced he’d been selected by Philadelphia. But there was plenty of outward emotion once he realized he’d been picked.
Ten minutes later, Embiid hopped down the staircase on one foot and entered Tellem’s living room.
“Philadelphia!” he exclaimed as 30 well-wishers clapped and cheered.
Embiid plopped onto a couch and began taking selfies with nearly everyone in the room. Then he spent the next hour reading tweets and looking at pictures on his cell phone, laughing hysterically at some of the memes poking fun at his solemn expression that was shown on TV.
Caterers brought out trays of shrimp cocktail, salmon, mac and cheese, barbecue chicken and crepes. The only things missing were Shirley Temples, Embiid’s favorite drink.
Embiid caught glimpses of the draft on a nearby television—”I hope he passes the ball,” he said when the 76ers took point guard Elfrid Payton with the 10th pick (later that night, Payton would be traded to the Magic)—and had a short phone conversation with Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie.
That evening Embiid’s sister, Laurence (who stands 6’2”), was serenaded with a chocolate cake for her 18th birthday. She was later seen in the backyard throwing a football in high heels while Embiid’s father, Thomas, took hacks with Nyam on Tellem’s putting green.
For a guy who had just achieved a dream—while also becoming a multimillionaire—Embiid’s day was about as low-key as it gets.
Embiid insists he hasn’t thought much about how his lifestyle could change because of his newfound wealth. Eventually, he said, he wants to buy a Bentley. But he may hold off since it snows a lot in Philadelphia. Otherwise, there are no grand plans for any major purchases.
Embiid even said he still has most of the money he received from his scholarship checks at Kansas, about $400 a month.
“I hardly spent any of it,” Embiid said. “That’s just how I was raised. Money has never been a problem for my family. I went to good schools. I was fed really good. I’ve never thought about money. I’ve just always thought about the future.”
Assuming he’s healthy, Embiid’s next 10-15 years could be wildly successful. Coaches marvel at how quickly he retains information and adapts on the court. And his physical gifts—particularly his athleticism, speed and footwork—are almost unheard of for a player of his size.
The most exciting thing is that Embiid isn’t anywhere close to reaching his ceiling. There’s still so much more he can do.
“Kansas was great for him,” Nyam said. “Body-wise, basketball-wise, knowledge of the game—he became a completely different player. But there was a system in place at Kansas and he didn’t want to get out of his lane. There are a lot of things he’s capable of doing that people never got to see.”
“The NBA is going to be great for me,” he said. “In college, every time I touched the ball I was double- or triple-teamed. It was hard for me to show that I have an offensive game. In the NBA, with the spacing and one-on-one stuff, I’m going to be able to use my quickness to excel. I think I’ll be pretty good at it.”
If that happens, then the possibilities for Embiid are endless. Kansas coach Bill Self said he wouldn’t be shocked if Embiid turned into a perennial All-Star.
“He’s 7-foot and he moves like a guard,” Self said. “He’s special. He does things that very few people can do. If he stays healthy, he could be one of the best big men in the league.”
No matter what happens, those closest to Embiid are convinced that he’ll never change. As fierce and competitive as he is on the court, he’ll always be easy-going and good-natured off of it, thankful for his gifts and never taking any of them for granted.
Before Thursday’s draft had even ended, Embiid was back in his bedroom, playing FIFA on PS4 with his friends.
“Sometimes kids don’t stay true to their values and principles when they leave home and go overseas,” Christine Embiid said. “Joel may have achieved some fame and celebrity, but he’s still a kid.
“We haven’t lost our son.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.
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