Joel Embiid has only been playing basketball three years, but no one could accuse the freshman center of being unaware of the game's history. As Embiid has overwhelmed the basketball world with his natural talent and developed into something close to the consensus No. 1 overall pick ahead of June's NBA draft, one name keeps popping up as a historical comparison for the Kansas star. That would be Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the best NBA big men of all-time and a player whose path to stardom shares many circumstantial similarities with Embiid's journey thus far.
Embiid is well aware of Olajuwon's backstory, how both players were natives of Africa who focused on other sports before picking up basketball midway through high school. When Embiid arrived in the United States with little concept of the game, he spent most of his first season watching tape of Olajuwon and studying his moves. For all of Embiid's natural ability, those around him seem nearly as impressed by the Kansas star's passion for the game.
If Embiid knows his history as well as they say, he is surely familiar with how fragile the careers of young big men can be, even those with talent as prodigious as his. It's what makes the latest update on Embiid's health so disheartening.
Kansas' Final Four hopes took a big hit Monday when coach Bill Self announced Embiid would miss the Big 12 Tournament and likely the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament with a stress fracture in his back. Kansas might have more frontcourt depth than any team in the country, but there's no way to replace a player like Embiid. In the short term, Memphis transfer Tarik Black will be asked to carry more responsibility for the Jayhawks. In the long term, Embiid may be at the first real crossroads of his career.
Back issues are a scary proposition for big men. It's what started the long and tortured history of Bill Walton's career, when he was undercut at UCLA in 1974 in a game against Washington State. It's what ended the career of Brad Daugherty at 28 years old after becoming a five-time NBA All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It helped slow down Olajuwon's Houston Rockets teammate Ralph Sampson too, whose career was constantly plagued by back pain and knee injuries.
Walton, Daugherty and Sampson were each taken No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, examples of the value teams place on dominant big men. That's a position Embiid will almost certainly find himself in whenever he decides to declare for the draft. The greater issue is avoiding the type of injuries that have tragically cut short the careers of so many other great, young centers.
Self has left open the possibility of Embiid returning in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament if the Jayhawks survive, which is no sure bet even with a deep and talented roster around their interior anchor. The bigger question is, should Embiid really rush back?
It's impossible to make definitive statements about Embiid's condition without knowing the severity of the stress fracture. Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond suffered the same injury last season and has been terrific this year. Given what we know about Embiid -- that he loves Lawrence and may even be entertaining the possibility of returning for his sophomore season -- it's likely he'll want to push through and get back out on the floor if team doctors and coaches will let him.
It's a decision those around him will have to think long and hard about. The Jayhawks owe it to Embiid to put the player ahead of the team. There are scant few humans born with the size and gracefulness that Embiid possesses, and there will be a lot of money coming his way as a result.
Seemingly as soon as Embiid became the clubhouse leader to go No. 1 overall in the NBA draft, he started to get slowed down by injuries. The high point of Embiid's Kansas career came when he abused a small Iowa State front line for 14 points and 11 rebounds on Jan. 29. It was the 10th time in 11 games Embiid had reached double-digits in scoring, but his back pain soon caught up with him.
Embiid failed to score in double-figures in three of his next four games, and then missed a home game against TCU. He would return to dominate the next four games of conference play before missing Kansas' last two contests of the regular season.
What's important to remember is that Embiid's basketball journey is still in its infancy. The team who takes him No. 1 overall won't be drafting a player for next year, they'll be drafting someone who has the ability to be one of the best centers in the NBA five years from now.
It wasn't long ago that Embiid was living in Cameroon with dreams of playing professional volleyball in Europe, but that's a small stakes game compared to the hundreds of millions that await him in the NBA. All Embiid needs to get there is to keep working hard to make strides with his game and avoid injuries. His talent and focus will ensure the former. The chance involved in the latter is what makes his latest back injury so alarming.