The 3rd overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft has yet to play in an NBA game, but Joel Embiid is reportedly 100% and ready to play basketball again. So, what can fans expect from the former Jayhawk and current social media all-star? It may be difficult to say, but let us have some fun looking at Embiid’s journey, from Cameroon to Lawrence to (finally) Philadelphia.
Joel Embiid made an immediate impact as a member of the 2013-14 Kansas Jayhawks, averaging 11 points (on an absurd 63% shooting from the field), eight rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game during his freshman campaign. Embiid came to Lawrence the lesser known of a loaded recruiting class that featured 2014 #1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins, and eventual three-year starter, Wayne Selden Jr. However, it did not take long to realize that Embiid was, in fact, the real deal. Embiid, formerly a volleyball star in Cameroon, only began to play basketball at the age of 15. The volleyball background, which former KU center Jeff Withey also possessed, provided Embiid with impeccable jumping ability, soft, sure hands, and yes, the willingness to block shots with no regard for human life.
His size, jumping ability, and timing allowed him to make an instant impact on the defensive end, where his 4.5 blocks per 40 minutes, along with his stellar defensive rating of 90.9, made him the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in his only collegiate season. Though those polished, natural athletic abilities allowed Embiid to shine on one end of the floor, it was his offensive prowess that caused him to rapidly ascend draft boards.
Basketball, as with all trades, is something that takes an immense amount of dedication, attention to detail, and repetition in order to thrive at a high level. In this aspect, Joel Embiid is an outlier. His feel for the flow of the game on the offensive end of the floor was so fluid and natural during his freshman year at Kansas that it appeared, for a while, that Embiid, not Wiggins, was headed toward the more prosperous NBA career.
However, when the 2014 calendar hit March, Embiid started suffering from back pain. This pain eventually ended his Kansas career prematurely. At the time, holding Embiid out seemed in the best interest for his promising future, no matter the repercussions it held on a very young Jayhawk team. After Embiid re-tweaked a nagging back injury on March 1 at Oklahoma State, Kansas went 3-4 to end what was once a promising season. The Philadelphia 76ers were clearly not concerned with Embiid’s long-term health, as GM Sam Hinkie, who, according to Embiid, “died for our sins”, selected him third overall. This was just two picks behind fellow Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins.
To complicate the back injury that plagued him during his only season at Kansas, Embiid suffered a foot injury during the lead up to the NBA Draft. While initially not deemed ‘serious’, and the Sixers’ plans focused much further down the road, Embiid ended up missing the entire 2014-15 season while Wiggins ran away with the Rookie of the Year award. Two Jayhawks, both drafted in the top five of the 2014 NBA Draft, were headed in entirely different directions.
While rehabbing from foot surgery, Embiid suffered a setback in his rehab that caused yet another foot surgery, putting him out for the entire 2015-16 season and ultimately putting his career in jeopardy. Philadelphia continued to accumulate young talent without the presence of Embiid, adding Duke star Jahlil Okafor to pair with Nerlens Noel in the front court. However, though Philadelphia struggled to win games, the team won the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery and the chance to draft a generational player in LSU’s Ben Simmons. The drafting of Simmons, combined with the slow-but-steady progression of Embiid, drastically changed the outlook of Philadelphia’s future.
The 2015-16 season was difficult on Sixers fans, as they once again suffered a gruesomely ugly, losing season. However, the prospect of drafting Simmons, along with the promising recovery of Joel Embiid, provided a light at the end of the tunnel. Every couple of weeks, videos would surface of Embiid performing various basketball activities, causing basketball fans to grin with delight at the possibility of watching Embiid play real, live basketball in the near future.
Now, it appears that we are about to finally see our wishes become reality, as Sixers coach Brett Brown recently said Embiid was on track to play in the preseason. Historically, foot injuries have not been kind to 7-foot NBA centers, see: Oden, Greg and Walton, Bill. However, if there’s anything we learned from Embiid’s short but impactful career as a Jayhawk, it’s that there really isn’t much of a historical precedent for a player like him. Here’s to hoping that his aforementioned ability to exceed expectations comes to fruition once more as we gear toward the 2016-17 NBA season, and (hopefully) the emergence of Joel Embiid.