During Kansas’ preseason practices last October, the eyes of the spectators were locked onto a lanky new arrival.
By then, everyone had heard of Andrew Wiggins. But Joel Embiid was still somewhat of a mystery. Even then, however, the vast potential of the young man from Cameroon who picked up the game a few years ago was evident.
He had moves. He could spin off the baseline and score with either hand. He could swat shots with a rare ease. He could run the floor and finish like a pro.
And throughout this season, he’s gradually morphed into a force that’s an obvious problem for every team outside Lawrence, Kan. He’s second in the nation in block percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy. He has an array of potent post moves now.
Every night, it seems, Embiid does something that makes grown men gush.
His effort in No. 15 Kansas’ 77-70 win over No. 8 Iowa State on Monday night in Ames established a new truth about a Jayhawks program that’s made its case as the best team in the Big 12 and one of the top teams in the country in recent weeks.
Embiid is the most important player on the Kansas roster.
He wasn’t the only star against the Cyclones. Wiggins collected 17 points and 19 rebounds. Naadir Tharpe had 23 points.
Embiid finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and two steals (seven turnovers, too) in 28 minutes.
But his time on the floor was limited by foul trouble, including a silly flagrant 1 in the first half. He fouled out in the final minute of the game.
By then, however, he’d already proven to the multitude of NBA scouts in Ames for the game that he deserves serious consideration as a No. 1 pick in next summer’s draft.
Before that payday, Embiid can lead Kansas to the Big 12 title and more. His presence on both ends of the floor has added a new dimension to Kansas basketball.
In KU’s past seven games (6-1), Embiid has averaged 13.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG and 3.0 BPG.
There is no ceiling for Embiid, who has as much upside as any college basketball player in the country. And against Iowa State on Monday, he seemed to realize it in the second half.
He didn’t just block Dustin Hogue, he robbed him in midair. He passed out of double teams. He dribbled on the baseline and scored.
He affected every possession when he was available.
But he wasn’t always available (Embiid averages 3.6 fouls per game).
He picked up his second flagrant foul in as many games. He was ejected from Saturday’s win over Kansas State after he threw an elbow that hit Nino Williams.
In Ames, he tussled with DeAndre Kane early in the first half and went to the bench, where he was scolded by Bill Self for disrupting his team’s momentum.
With 15:13 remaining in the first half, the Jayhawks led 15-4. Iowa State, a team that finished 4-for-25 from the 3-point line, managed to tie the game by halftime, 36-36, after Embiid missed a crucial stretch.
Then, the light came on. And Embiid began to compete like a young man who suddenly realized the court was his canvas and he was free to do what he wanted with it (he scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half).
The rest of us could only watch and wonder.
Wonder if this path leads to Olajuwon.
After the game, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg told reporters that Embiid is the best player in America.
He’s not there yet. But he can get there.
If he avoids the nonsense.
Monday’s flagrant foul did not cost the Jayhawks a victory. But it could have.
And that’s what Embiid has to recognize. He’s too important to interrupt his team’s progress with avoidable errors.
He still has a lot to learn. Clearly. He’s still working on passes out of the paint when he’s trapped. He’s still testing his range. He’s still figuring out the difference between establishing position in the post legally and illegally.
But every game, he takes another step, steps that could lead to the late stages of the NCAA tournament if Kansas keeps growing.
The Jayhawks can ride Embiid to the top of the league and beyond.
Based on Monday’s game and the matchups that preceded it, Embiid is beginning to understand that. But that possibility won’t materialize unless he stays on the floor.