LAWRENCE, Kan. — The first time Kansas center Joel Embiid played basketball on U.S. soil, his high school teammates laughed.
A guard’s pass hit Embiid in the stomach. He tripped and fell coming off a screen, and the ball bounced off his foot when he was simply trying to dribble past a defender.
Fresh off a plane from the African country of Cameroon, Embiid had arrived at Montverde Academy—a prep school in Florida—knowing little English and even less about basketball. As a child, he had focused on volleyball and soccer.
Still, at 6'9", with the wingspan of a pterodactyl and the footwork of a ballet dancer, it was obvious to coach Kevin Boyle that he had landed a treasure in the 16-year-old Embiid—no matter how awkward he appeared in his first informal practice at the school.
When Montverde's players snickered at yet another clumsy play by their gargantuan newcomer, Boyle blew his whistle and motioned for Embiid to get a drink of water.
As Embiid walked away, Boyle summoned his players to center court.
"Laugh all you want," he said, "But in five years, you're going to be asking him for a loan, because he's going to be worth about $50 million."
Boyle chuckles when recalling the story.
"I told them, 'You have no idea how good that kid is going to be.'"
Less than three years since that day in 2011, Embiid—now a 7-foot college freshman—is the starting center for a Kansas team that has won nine straight Big 12 regular-season titles.
The thought entering the season was that Embiid's teammate, Andrew Wiggins, would be the No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft. But lately the scouts that line the walls at KU's practices concede that Embiid could be in the mix for that top slot, too. At the very worst, he's expected to go in the top five.
"We need to play him all the time," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But the more he plays, the less time he's going to spend in Lawrence."
Lofty praise for someone playing just his third year of organized basketball. Still, as much progress as he's made since arriving from Cameroon as a high school junior, the excitement about Embiid exists for the same reason it did back in that practice gym at Montverde.
It's not about how good Embiid is now. It's about how good he could become.
"I'm not even thinking about the NBA right now," Embiid told Bleacher Report. "People have been saying that I'm playing good, but I don't think so. I'm not even close to being good yet. I'm not even close to being where I want to be."
If the last few years are any indication, Embiid will get there sooner rather than later.
Within a year he went from playing on the JV squad at his high school to being ranked among the top 10 college prospects in America by virtually every recruiting service. He studies film of his idol, Hakeem Olajuwon, one day and then mimics one of his post moves to perfection the next.
About a month ago, Self gave Embiid a tape of former KU shot-blocker Jeff Withey and told him to watch it. A week later Embiid swatted seven shots—all after halftime—in the Jayhawks' win over UTEP.
|Tale of the Tape: Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Joel Embiid|
|Hakeem Olajuwon||Joel Embiid|
|Lagos, Nigeria||Hometown||Yaoundé, Cameroon|
|250 lbs.||Weight||250 lbs.|
|Age 15||1st year of organized basketball||Age 16|
|Vitals via ESPN.com/NBA.com|
"He can do things that only a few people in the world can do," one NBA scout said.
It's no stretch to say Embiid is a basketball savant. Self calls him a "sponge" because he soaks up so much information. No college player in America has a higher ceiling than Embiid, and that's if he has one at all.
"It comes easy to him," Self said. "He moves like a 6-footer with his feet. He can move in a way that very few guys in the past have been able to move. There's a skill set there that very few 7-footers have.
"He has a natural feel, natural instincts. Of all the guys on our team, he's the most instinctive basketball guy we have."
And that's the crazy part: It shouldn't be like that. If there's any player in college basketball with an excuse to look uncomfortable on the court, it's a 7-foot center from the middle of Africa who three years ago didn't know the difference between man-to-man and zone defense.
Standing outside the gate at Yaounde National Airport in Cameroon two years ago, Embiid couldn't hold back the tears. His parents and younger brother and sister huddled around him. Aunts and uncles, too.
As he hugged each of them before boarding a plane to Florida, Embiid squeezed a little tighter than usual, not knowing when he'd see them again.
"Just imagine walking away from your whole family like that," Embiid said. "It's not easy."
Embiid had a good life in Cameroon, where he excelled academically and was a standout midfielder on the soccer field and an imposing presence on the volleyball court. Thomas and Christine Embiid, who have been married 21 years, kept a close watch on their son, rarely letting Joel leave the house unless it was for school or athletics.
"Joel didn't lack anything," said Thomas, speaking through an interpreter during a visit to Lawrence last month. "He always had food on the table and plenty of clothes. The school system was fine. He was never in any trouble. It was a good environment, a good situation."
Within a matter of months, his path was altered.
In July of 2011—the summer before his junior year of high school—Embiid attended a camp hosted by Cameroon native Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a former UCLA standout who's now with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves.
Embiid had dabbled in basketball as a child, often engaging in pick-up games with friends from school or at a local park. But he said he'd never played on a team or been coached, and with little media coverage, Embiid rarely watched basketball on television.
Those things apparently didn't concern Mbah a Moute as he watched Embiid—who was 6'9" at the time—during the camp. The footwork and distance runner's stride he had developed on the soccer field, the aggression he had used spiking volleyballs, the discipline and selflessness instilled in Embiid by his parents...all of it was on display that weekend.
After the final session, Mbah a Moute tabbed Embiid as one of the top five performers at the camp, with the reward being an invitation to attend a larger, more prestigious camp (Basketball Without Borders) in Johannesburg, South Africa, the following month.
BWB, as it's known, is part of an NBA global outreach program that targets the top under-19 players from Asia, Europe, Latin America and South Africa.
Despite his inexperience, Embiid held his own against the elite competition, making it even more obvious that basketball was his future.
After finally getting the blessing of his father—who wanted his son to pursue a volleyball career in Europe—Embiid left Cameroon for Lake County, Fla., and Montverde Academy, which is also Mbah a Moute's alma mater.
"There was no sadness," said Thomas Embiid, a colonel in the Cameroon military and former African handball champion. "Coming to the USA was a huge opportunity for my son to establish himself. I kept pushing him to get his education and to play sports."
Embiid knew almost no English when he arrived in Florida, but several of his teammates—including Landry Nnoko (who now plays for Clemson) and Roger Moute a Bidias (who now plays for Cal)—were from Cameroon and had already spent time at the school. They helped Embiid communicate with the coaching staff until he could do so on his own.
Embiid said he actually had an easier time at Montverde academically than he did in his native country.
Basketball was a different story.
Each day at practice, Embiid was pitted against standouts such as Nnoko, current Florida point guard Kasey Hill and center Dakari Johnson, a McDonald's All-American who now plays for Kentucky.
Embiid was behind his teammates when it came to understanding the game, but he hardly let that intimidate him. His battles in the paint with Johnson are still talked about among Montverde alums.
"Every single day, he and Dakari were about to fight," Hill said by phone from Florida last week. "Coach Boyle was always having to break them up. They were fouling each other, pounding on each other, elbowing each other.
"JoJo is a happy kid. He's real outgoing. But on the court, he's not going to back down from anyone."
Even though Embiid spent almost all of the season on the junior varsity squad, he was making progress at an alarming rate—mainly because of his work ethic. During his lunch breaks and after practice, he would often seek out extra instruction from Boyle.
Much of Embiid's free time was spent in his room, where he would repeatedly watch a tape of Olajuwon that a coach had given him a few months earlier. Much like Embiid, Olajuwon developed his footwork and balance on the soccer field and didn't begin playing basketball until his teenage years.
The more Embiid studied the tape, the more he became infatuated with Olajuwon. Each day he would designate time to work on moves such as the fall-back jumper off one foot, or up-and-unders and spins on the baseline. And, of course, there was Olajuwon's patented hook shot.
"The best thing about Joel is that he loves to play," Boyle said. "That has a lot of value that people don't realize. They assume that, because a kid is good at something, he has a passion for it. But you'd be surprised at how many kids only play during practice or when their trainer is with them.
"But Joel just loved to be in the gym."
By the end of the season, Embiid had made significant enough strides to warrant a spot on the varsity squad. He saw action in Montverde's loss to Findley (Nev.) Prep in the title game of the National High School Invitational tournament. That summer, he played on an AAU team with Hill and highly touted Florida signee Chris Walker.
"With those guys on the team, I wasn't getting a ton of shots," Embiid said. "I was mainly just doing my job, getting rebounds and blocking shots. But I guess I was doing something right, because after that summer, everything changed."
For more than an hour, Self hardly said a word.
At the urging of his assistant, Norm Roberts, the Kansas coach had traveled to Gainesville (Fla.) in the fall of 2012 to watch Embiid in an open scrimmage at The Rock, the private school to which he had transferred in hopes of getting more playing time as a senior.
As Embiid and his teammates trotted off the court, Roberts turned to Self.
"Well," Roberts said, "what do you think?"
Self was still speechless.
"I mean, I know he's raw," Roberts said. "I know he's a project and all, but ... "
"Are you frickin' kidding me?" he said. "This dude could be the No. 1 pick in the draft. He can run. He's got good feet. He's got touch. He's unbelievable. He'll be the best big man we've ever coached if we can get him."
|DraftExpress' Projected Top 5 Picks in 2014 NBA Draft|
Self's message to Roberts, his lead recruiter, was clear.
"Forget all the other guys we've been after," Self said. "That's the guy we've got to get. We've got to get Joel."
It certainly wouldn't be easy.
Florida coach Billy Donovan had already made Embiid one of his top priorities, and it certainly didn't hurt that Walker and Hill, Embiid's AAU teammates, had pledged to the Gators. And since The Rock was in Gainesville, Embiid often found himself in pickup games with Florida players.
Texas was heavily pursuing Embiid, too, and he fell in love with Austin on his official visit.
Kansas, though, scheduled Embiid's trip to Lawrence the same weekend as Late Night in the Phog, the Jayhawks' version of Midnight Madness. Embiid said walking into Allen Fieldhouse and seeing 16,300 fans was nothing short of overwhelming.
"It was crazy," said Embiid, who was joined on his visit by future teammate Wayne Selden. "We walked in there and everyone started clapping and yelling. I didn't know what was going on. I was scared. I was like, 'Are they clapping for us?' I just looked down at the ground. I couldn't believe it."
Moving as the experience may have been, the choice still wasn't easy. As he struggled with his decision, Embiid never gave Kansas' coaches a hint as to which way he was leaning.
"We asked him if he liked Midnight Madness and he was like, 'It was nice,'" Roberts said. "He was playing it cool. He's one of these guys that, when you talk to him, he looks you in the eye and you wonder if he's really paying attention. But he really is. He's listening to everything you say."
To help with his final decision, Embiid said he made a list of pros and cons for each of the three schools. Kansas topped the list for atmosphere and its track record of sending post players to the pros, but Texas and Florida ranked first in other categories.
Embiid said the final decision came after NBA types told his high school coaches and Mbah a Moute that Kansas would best prepare him for the next level. He said he still remembers how ecstatic Self was when he called him to commit.
"He just kept saying, 'You're a stud. You're a stud. You're going to be the best big man I've ever coached,'" Embiid said. "It made me feel very happy."
When he called Embiid on a Saturday evening in October, Roberts sensed something wasn't right. Embiid's voice was soft, his sentences short. Roberts asked Embiid where he was.
"I'm at Allen Fieldhouse," Embiid said. "I'm here shooting."
Roberts hurried to the gym and approached Embiid on the court. He had been there, alone, for more than an hour.
"Coach Self is not pleased with me," Embiid whispered. "He is not happy with me at all."
Less than 24 hours earlier, at Late Night in the Phog, Self had told the Jayhawks to "have fun" during their 20-minute scrimmage in front of a capacity crowd in Lawrence. He urged them to "show their personality." Embiid responded by hoisting ill-advised shots, dribbling behind his back and attempting a few too many fancy passes.
"I told them to have fun," Self said, "and he thought that meant jumping around and acting stupid while the game was going on."
After the players filed into the locker room, Self unleashed a verbal tirade on Embiid.
"You looked like a jackass out there," Self said. "I don't know about you, Joel. Your attitude stinks. You're soft. I don't know if I can coach you, Joel. Maybe you should just take your ass back to Cameroon."
Embiid said he left Allen Fieldhouse in tears. And he was still rattled nearly 24 hours later when Roberts found him on the practice court.
"(Self) wants you to be great—he knows you can be great," Roberts told him. "He's not going to treat you with kid gloves when your attitude isn't right. He's trying to bring out the best in you."
"OK," he said. "I understand."
Ever since that day, Embiid has operated with the kind of intensity that Self demands. He's one of the Jayhawks' most competitive players at practice—"I got you, 'Mari!" Embiid screamed after dunking over teammate Jamari Traylor during a recent workout—but he's also the most attentive.
"He's been unbelievable as far as listening goes," Self said. "We never have to tell him something twice.
"He knows he's got a lot to learn. No question. But he's done a great job of understanding the things we think are his shortcomings and working hard to eliminate those."
That's not to say Embiid doesn't have slip-ups. During a practice last month, with his father watching from the stands, Embiid was out of position in a drill and caught an earful from Self.
Thomas—who one night earlier had seen Joel play in a game for the first time ever—was expressionless as Self ripped into his son.
"Being a colonel in military, I know there is no pain, no gain," Thomas said. "If you want something you've got to go hard for it. I understand any philosophy that is about pushing people to the limit and being hard on somebody in order to get something from them."
During his five-day visit, Thomas Embiid was taken aback at the support and love Kansas fans have shown his son. Joel said being in Lawrence has helped him become a more outgoing person.
"When I moved here, I was a kid who didn't like to talk very much," Embiid said. "I was calm and quiet, like my dad."
At Kansas, Embiid has been anything but aloof.
When strangers approach him off-campus and ask for a picture or an autograph, Embiid obliges and engages them in conversation. He's made friends with students outside of the basketball team and has become a favorite among local media members.
Last month, when a reporter asked him about a rumor that he had killed a lion with his bare hands back in Cameroon, Embiid didn't deny it. The tall tale ended up in print, which caused quite a bit of laughter in the Jayhawks' locker room.
Embiid—who is now fluent in English, French and Bassa (the native language of Cameroon)—is adapting to American culture in other ways, too.
He's developed a fondness for chicken and can often be found at KFC or Jefferson's, a popular Lawrence eatery where he orders the "atomic, double-dipped" chicken wings. A chocolate lover, Embiid has also discovered Nutella. It's not unusual for Embiid to buy a bag of croissants, slice them in half and make Nutella sandwiches.
"I've seen him eat six in one sitting," Roberts said. "And he once ate 21 brownies with ice cream. I've never seen anyone eat like that."
The 250-pound Embiid said those days are in his past. He said he knows he needs to be in the best shape possible to help Kansas win a 10th-straight conference title and contend for an NCAA championship.
After opening the season on the bench, Embiid cracked the starting lineup earlier this month and is now averaging 9.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks—all in just 20.7 minutes per contest. His best performance came in Saturday's victory over New Mexico, when he tallied a season-high 18 points along with six rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
That was also the game in which Embiid unveiled "The Dream Shake," an Olajuwon move that allowed him to victimize Lobos center Alex Kirk under the basket.
Embiid said he has plenty of other tricks in his arsenal, but he's not ready to use them in games.
"I do them in practice, but in a game it's different," said Embiid, who has a 7'5" wingspan. "I'm not comfortable and I don't know when to use them. I'm still scared of getting a turnover or Coach getting mad at me.
"Right now all Coach wants me to do when I catch the ball is (shoot a) hook shot. Sometimes he'll let me face up. I think I'm doing well, though. When I master those moves, I can start doing those things."
The trait that impresses Kansas coaches the most about Embiid is that he takes as much pride in his Kevin Love-like outlet passes and his assists—he had five in a win over Duke—as he does his scoring and rebounding.
"He gets better every single day," Selden said. "He's become one of our main guys to go to. He listens to everything people tell him. Everything that's happening for him, he deserves, because he works so hard. It's all happening very fast for him."
Only two years have passed since that day in the practice gym back at Montverde, when Embiid's lack of experience and polish evoked laughter from his teammates. Boyle told them then that Embiid would be worth $50 million someday—and, more and more, it appears the prediction may not have been that off-base.
Embiid, though, said he tries not to think about the the NBA right now, even if others make it difficult for him not to. He said he's routinely stopped on campus and asked if he'll return for his sophomore season.
"I just smile," Embiid said. "I tell them I'm going to be here all four years."
Embiid laughs, and there's a twinkle in his eye. He won't admit it verbally, but even he knows his college career will likely be brief. Longtime followers of Kansas' program have even suggested that Embiid (along with Wiggins) is the school's best NBA prospect since Paul Pierce.
"A lot of U.S. kids with that kind of talent get to college and say, 'OK, I'm ready for the pros. Let's go!'" Roberts said. "But Joel is like, 'Oh, I've got to get so much stronger. I've got to learn more about the game. I've got to get better.'"
"Don't get me wrong, though," he said. "Joel knows how talented he is. He knows how good he's going to be.
"At this point, how could he not?"
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @JasonKingBR.