Joel Embiid is the next big name in line on my series documenting the likely stars of the 2014 NBA Draft. As with before, comments, criticism, and disagreements are very much welcome. Everybody sees players differently (see: Hasheem Thabeet, Andre Drummond, Shabazz Muhammad), and it always interesting to get other opinions.
BACKGROUND: Joel Embiid has a very unusual background. If you get the chance, Bleacher Report has an excellent article regarding Embiid's past in Cameroon and his transition to the Kansas Jayhawks. The synopsis: Embiid, born in Cameroon, has only played any kind of organized basketball for about two and some years. While he had occasionally played a pick up game or two as a child, he primarily played soccer and volleyball growing up. At a camp held by Cameroon's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the 16 year old (and, at that time, 6'9") Embiid was named one of the top performers. With little experience, Embiid decided to attend a Florida high school (one that other top collegiate players attended) and struggled mightily. Thanks to his incredible work ethic (and growth spurt), however, Embiid went from being a 6'9" JV player to a solid, 7'0" player on the varsity team and a contributor on a top AAU squad. He was also given a tape of Hakee Olajuwon during this time, and his desire to emulate him quickly took off, practicing day in and day out to master his moves. At the urge of a Kansas University assistant, coach Bill Self came to watch Embiid at an open scrimmage and felt he could be the number one overall pick in the draft if he continued to grow basketball-wise. Embiid would eventually choose Kansas as his college of choice, and has since continued to develop at an extraordinary rate, going from a JV player in high school to coming off the Kansas bench to being part of the Jayhawks' starting lineup, all before three years had even passed.
- Legitimate NBA Center Size. The biggest strength about Embiid is his size. While there are many undersized bigs in the game today, Embiid is not one of them. He is a true 7 footer (7'0") and weighs 250 lbs with a great 7'5" wingspan. His physique is also outstanding: Broad shoulders, a strong base, great length, and an overall intimidating figure.
- Fantastic Footwork. Thanks to his time playing soccer, Embiid has shown that he has incredible footwork. In his developing post-game, footwork has been the driving force in his amazing progression. He continually gets himself in great position and can move adeptly and skillfully around his opponent, almost like a ballerina. Has very active feet that assist him in a variety of ways (boxing out, posting up, avoiding charges, etc.).
- Very Agile and Mobile. Again due to his time playing soccer, Embiid has the ability to run up and down the court like a gazelle (or as close as a big man can come to looking like one). He has great lateral movement and movement in general, aided by his amazing footwork. He seems to slide around the court effortlessly. He is a solid jumper, but he has shown the ability to get up high occasionally for blocks. With his height and length, jumping high is not a necessity.
- Incredibly Quick Learner. The amount that Embiid has progressed in not even three years time is nothing short of phenomenal. He not only possesses the ability to learn seemingly everything, but the burning desire to do so, as well. When he came over to the United States less than three years ago, he was getting hit in the stomach by chest passes. Since then, he has developed a hook shot, shown Hakeem's "Dream Shake," shown great shot-blocking instincts, learned a developing mid-range jumper, learned the drop-step, and shown great passing instincts. Many NBA players go their entire careers without learning even half of these skills. If Embiid can learn these in just over two years, there is no telling how much he can develop. The sky is truly the limit for him.
- Very Promising Low-Post Game. Much of this was mentioned in the "Quick Learner" section, but Embiid has progressed immensely on his low post game. Few thought he had any moves, but in only a little over 10 college games, he has shown us the hook shot, the "Dream Shake," the drop-step, quick spin moves, pump-fakes, and up-and-under moves. He seems to show something new every game. He also is capable of using both his right and left hand very well, a HUGE plus. He practices post-moves at a Kobe-like rate, and is always trying to practice and learn new moves. He apparently possesses even more post-moves that he has shown in practice, but is reluctant to use all of them in game-situations as he is not 100% confident with them yet. This shows that he is also not willing to fool around in games. The future is bright for him in this category, as he already possesses a very solid post-game, and has shown the ability to master even the toughest of moves.
- Good Rebounder. Shows a desire to corral rebounds. Embiid is currently averaging 6.6 rebounds in about 21 minutes a game, translating to about 13 per 40 minutes. He is active on both the defensive glass (9 per 40) and offensive glass (4 per 40). Embiid is also good at getting in position and boxing out, assuring that the rebound can come to him, and is getting better with each passing game. Uses all of his physical attributes (length, agility, strength) to get the boards.
- Good Shot Blocker. Embiid has shown the ability to make jaw-dropping blocks and rejections. His instincts are solid right now and are becoming noticeably better with each passing game. With more experience, his timing will improve, as well. While he doesn't block every shot, he does use his length to his advantage and does a great job altering many shots. Keeps his arms up high, making it hard for opponents to shoot over him.
- Good Hands. As mentioned before, Embiid has both a good right and left hand to use. He has a soft touch around the basket and can get his hands in the traffic lanes well for steals. Catches difficult catches fairly well. His hands help to snatch rebounds out of the air, as well.
- 100% Effort.One thing is certain: Embiid does not lack effort. He is always running up and down the court on fast breaks, always trying to work the glass, and consistently being involved in every play. He goes all-in on both the offensive side of the court and the defensive end, not letting his attention wander when his team doesn't have the ball. This gives great hope that his potential can be maxed out in every facet, and not just on one end of the court.
Great Passing Instincts. This is another area that he quickly proved scouts wrong. Embiid has shown quite a few times that he can make the exceptional pass, a surprise to just about everyone. He sees the floor better than advertised and can hit the open man. He is still learning to recognize various schemes and plays, and thus will at times try for passes that can't be made, but the vision is still there.
- Still Learning. While Embiid has shown incredible growth and abilities, he is still very raw. For every great post-move he makes, he makes a turnover with equally stunning qualities. For every incredible block comes a highly questionable shot (such as taking a three-pointer late in a one point game). The flashes of brilliance are becoming more and more common, but the obvious mistakes are still there. Under three years of basketball can only take you so far, even in Embiid's case. He will obviously need more experience, and while staying another year in college would vastly help, it would be hard for him to stay with the way he is skyrocketing up the boards. The team that drafts him will need to take the good with the bad and not get too excited by each SportsCenter Top 10 play as well as not getting to disappointed by each embarrassing turnover.
- Defense. While Embiid always puts in the effort on the defensive end, he still is lost in general. The offensive side of his game may have developed quickly, but the defensive side is taking much longer. The biggest problem is that he reacts slowly to the plays that are unfolding. He is often unsure of many defensive fundamentals (i.e. when to double, when to use a foul, when to stay by the basket and wait for penetration, etc.) and gambles far too often, resulting in many quick and unnecessary fouls (although he is stealing the ball at an impressive rate so far). He has also shown trouble guarding more experienced bigs in the lane, usually leaving his feet too early to go for the block rather than just staying tall. That will be a huge problem in the NBA. He is learning to keep his arms straight up and stay tall, but still attempts to block many more shots than he should (the defenders either get fouled or pump-fake and go right around him). He is a good shot-blocker and is improving at that, and when he does use his length properly, he alters many shots in the lane. Other than that, however, he is VERY raw on the defensive end, and this is where more experience will help tremendously. The silver lining: He is always willing to learn and puts forth the effort.
- Toughness. While Embiid has shown the ability to make great post-moves and corral rebounds, one of the big knocks on him is that he isn't very tough. He tends to avoid contact when he has the ball in the post, and if he can't make a nice post-move (hook shot, spin move, etc.), he will more than likely pass the ball back out. He has also started too far from the basket many times when he receives the ball, being complacent with his positioning rather than fighting to get deeper towards the basket. Embiid rarely rips through and powers his way inside, which also translates to rebounding and defense. While he gets himself in good position and boxes out well, he has shown that he has some trouble against more physical players. His length has helped him out thus far, but the NBA is full of both tall and physical players (see: DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Roy Hibbert, etc.). Defensively, he has been backed down too easy at times by tougher players, but again, has been bailed out by his length (they can't shoot over him). The toughness factor will be HUGE in the NBA, and whether he becomes tougher will be something to keep a very close eye on.
Shooting. One aspect of Embiid's game that will truly raise his game to the next level is the ability to make a 15 foot jump shot. Like with most aspects of his game, he has shown in a game that he can drain such a shot with ease (see the "Video" section below), and his shooting mechanics look very good thus far. He is still working on it, however, and needs to get much more consistent. Embiid is also shooting worse from the line (63%) than from the field (67%), but that should improve, as his stroke looks good. Again, more practice, and he should nail this one down fairly easy.
OVERALL ASSESSMENT: Joel Embiid has talent and potential that is simply off the charts. While mentioned many times, it can't be said enough how incredibly quick Embiid has developed. He still has a ways to go, especially on the defensive end, but there are now few who don't believe he can get there. The most obvious comparison is actually the most likely: Hakeem Olajuwon. Both were 7'0", 250 lbs soccer players born in an African country that eventually turned to basketball. Both have top-tier footwork, great athleticism, a great shot-blocking ability, and most importantly, an array of highly skilled low-post moves. Embiid is not as far along as Olajuwon was, but his skill level is certainly on par (and few big men, if any, have matched the skill level of Olajuwon). Another solid comparison is Roy Hibbert, a long, defensive, shot-blocking player who will hit at least one or two solid post-moves a game. Embiid does not have the defensive abilities of Hibbert yet, but his offense and footwork are more advanced. At this point, Embiid's floor looks to be Roy Hibbert with less defense and more offensive ability, which is a very high floor. At best, Embiid continues to progress at an unfathomable rate and grasps every concept, becoming the next Hakeeem Olajuwon. Whoever drafts him will likely need to be patient for at least two or three years (big men always take a while to develop) while he continues to pick up defensive concepts and learns to stay more in control on offense, but everything looks to be in place for him. The biggest concern at this point is watching his physicality and hoping that he becomes more assertive. The future could not be brighter, especially with his burning desire to learn and great effort-level.
VIDEO (Showing both individual plays that exhibit his skills as well as game tape):
The Dream Shake. Few, if any, are capable of this move in today's game, yet Embiid was able to perform it in a game situation after only a few years of playing basketball. Incredible.
One of Embiid's incredible blocks. These are becoming more and more frequent, a great sign for the future.
Embiid highlights vs. Iona. The team lacked a great post presence, and the game was earlier in the season (early November), but Embiid still heavily impresses. Shows an array of blocks, post-moves, dunks, and rebounds.
Embiid against the solid Georgetown team. He hits a nice jump shot in the early moments of this video, showcasing his great form and potential to hit them more often. Also shows monster blocks, good post-moves, and fantastic dunks.