When the season started, Joel Embiid was the other star freshman on the Kansas roster. A 19-year old from Cameroon who started playing basketball three years ago, Embiid was widely seen as a project, a raw big man still years away from thinking about the NBA.
Boy, have things changed. While he is nowhere near his ceiling, Embiid has shown more than enough in his first season at Lawrence to have NBA executives salivating. He is the rare prospect actually worth tanking to get, and he's now seen as the likely No. 1 pick.
How did this rise happen?
At 7'0 and 250 pounds with a 7'4 wingspan, Embiid looks like he was constructed in a laboratory from the best parts of lesser center prospects. He has elite size, length and athleticism. He has the ability to get down in a stance and switch on the pick-and-roll, bang with bigger players on the block and contest shots high above the rim.
What makes him special, though, is what he can do on the other side of the ball. Embiid is the rare seven-footer who projects as both an elite defensive and offensive player.
Watching Embiid grow this season is like watching Neo at the end of The Matrix as he starts to realize the normal rules don't apply to him. In a game against New Mexico in non-conference play, Embiid busted out a legitimate Dream Shake, leaving Alex Kirk (7'0, 250 lbs) in the dust on his way to the rim. At that point, scouts could put away the notebook, kick their feet up and enjoy the show.
His statistics aren't totally there yet, but that's primarily because he plays only 22 minutes a night due to constantly being in foul trouble. Embiid is still figuring out that he doesn't have to block every shot, grab every rebound and go after every steal. Soon, he'll realize that his mere presence in the middle of the lane is more than enough to impact the game, and the fouls will go down. He is averaging 11 points, eight rebounds, one assist, one steal and 2.5 blocks a game on 62 percent shooting in that time, good for a 26.8 PER.
Embiid already alters the geometry of a college game. Baylor and Texas are the only teams in the Big 12 with the frontcourt players to man him up. Everyone else has to send double and triple teams and junk up their defense, because there aren't many athletic 6'10+ big men who can bang with Embiid, even in the deepest conference in college basketball. Kansas doesn't have great outside shooting, which makes the decision even easier.
It starts to get unfair when you consider Embiid's ability to stretch the floor and knock down mid-range jumpers. It's not a huge part of his game, for good reason, but he is shooting 66 percent from the free-throw line this season, an excellent number for a freshman big man still learning the game.
His situation certainly helps, of course. Under Bill Self, the Jayhawks have always been one of the premier post teams in the country, running an inside-out attack that features a lot of high-low action and back-door cuts. Self's offense is the perfect situation for Embiid to learn the game, as the floor is almost always properly spaced and the perimeter players are taught how to play off a big man. Most college teams aren't committed to playing inside-out, with guards who don't know how to feed the post and who stand around and watch when they do, making it easy to double-team the block. Kansas is no glorified AAU outfit, which is why they've won nine straight Big 12 titles.
In that respect, Embiid may have been better served by not picking up the game until he was 16. Unlike most young big men, he didn't learn any bad habits from playing in an uptempo AAU setting that might as well be a pick-up game. Embiid is not trying to run point, take the ball between his legs and shoot 3s. He has no problem getting into the post, fighting for position and demanding the ball. When you are that big, why make the game hard on yourself?
Because of his African heritage, Embiid has received a lot of Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons, but I don't think you have to go that far in the past to find a player he resembles. Embiid is a fundamentally-sound big man who picked up the game at 16, a blank slate without any bad habit. He plays the game the right way and seems to get better by the week.
You know who this sounds like? Tim Duncan.
Duncan, like Embiid, did not grow up playing basketball. He was an elite swimmer as a teenager in the Virgin Islands until a hurricane knocked out the island's only Olympic-sized pool. I've always thought the reason Duncan is so humble is because the game came so easy. Why would it be such a big deal when he could roll out of bed, not really know what's going on and get a double-double? For a seven-footer with his size and athleticism, it doesn't look difficult.
In Duncan's first year in college, he averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds a game on 54 percent shooting. Like Embiid, who told reporters earlier this week he was considering staying in school, Duncan was in no rush to go to the NBA. He was probably the last great player to stay all four years in college. The media environment has changed so much from 1994 to 2014, so it's hard to see Embiid doing the same, but he certainly could replicate Duncan's path without worrying about his draft stock.
In his 17th season in the NBA, with the vast majority of his draft class long since retired, Duncan is still the centerpiece of an elite team. He has four titles, three NBA Finals MVPs, two regular-season MVPs, 14 All-Star berths, 14 All-NBA honors and 14 All-Defensive team selections. Embiid may not do that, because that would make him one of the 10 greatest players of all time.
Nevertheless, that's the upside he has. Embiid is a $1 billion dollar lottery ticket. No matter what draft he's in, it will be hard not to scratch it.