Six years ago, a willowy youth named Joel Embiid placed his titanic fingers on a basketball for the first time. A cousin chucked the foreign object at the unpretentious 12-year-old, whose ambition in life then was to become either the best soccer forward his hometown of Yaounde, Cameroon, has ever seen, or a professional volleyball player in Europe.
Today, Embiid’s aspirations have blossomed as much as he has. The 7-foot Kansas freshman is now perched atop everyone’s NBA draft boards, snatching away the honor long reserved for teammate Andrew Wiggins. It’s funny how things change so quickly when it comes to this year’s draft class, the deepest since 2003.
Wiggins was anointed No. 1 before suiting up for Kansas, then after a start that wasn’t as dazzling as anticipated, the attention quickly shifted to Duke’s Jabari Parker. And, after an ensuing shooting slump by Parker, Embiid ascended to the top, a player who as of today has started a grand total of 10 games as a collegian. Indeed, Embiid’s development is happening at an alarming rate but in a league in dire need of a true center, he’s a godsend.
What’s not to like? Embiid is 250 pounds with the body fat of a grain of rice. He’s nimble thanks to his soccer and volleyball background and loves to run the floor. He’s a leaper, sky-rocketing almost three feet above the rim from standing flatfooted. He’s already learned how to fight for space so he doesn’t get outrebounded and is a good position player defensively.
Last week, in two Jawhawks wins, Embiid averaged a double-double (14.5 ppg., 10.0 rpg.) while rejecting 13 shots. He had 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks at Iowa State, then added 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks against Oklahoma State. Against the Cowboys, he became the first freshman in Big 12 history to score 10 or more points, grab 10 or more rebounds and register eight blocked shots in a game. The eight rejections broke his own Kansas freshman single-game record, tied the Big 12 freshman record for all games and broke the mark for a conference game.
He’s drawing comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, which over the long haul may turn out to be sacrilegious, but the Dream was unrefined at the same age and didn’t possess Embiid’s basketball instincts. It wasn’t until late in his sophomore season at Houston that Olajuwon dropped hints of becoming a dominant center.
For Embiid, it could happen sooner than later.
Parker may wait a year
Word out of Chicago is that Parker is considering returning to Duke for his sophomore season, rather than turn pro. His friend, fellow Chicagoan and the nation’s top recruit Jahlil Okafor, is headed to Duke as is Minnesota’s Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2014. If Parker returns, the Blue Devils will enter the 2014-15 season ranked No. 1. Besides, another year of college wouldn’t hurt. Parker’s recent shooting slump has raised concerns from NBA scouts and the next time he plays defense will be the first time. Tom Izzo says it’s not a sin to be a senior. Or a sophomore.
GW takes a hit
George Washington suffered a huge loss in sophomore guard Kethan Savage, who is expected to miss the next 6-8 weeks after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. The injury happened near the end of the Colonials’ game at St. Bonaventure last Saturday. Savage scored 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting against the Bonnies and in addition to being one of the team’s top perimeter shooters he’s also a defensive stopper. Without Savage, GW is now just seven deep and it looks like he won’t return in the A-10 Tournament.
Northwestern leans on ‘D’
Northwestern isn’t ready for a quantum leap into the upper half of the Big Ten, but it had two quality wins last week over rival Illinois at home and on the road at Indiana and scored a double overtime win at Purdue on Tuesday.
The Wildcats’ identity under first-year coach Chris Collins is defense. After yielding an average of 81 points in its first three conference games, Northwestern held opponents to an average of 51 points in the next four contests. The Boilermakers scored just 46 points by the end of regulation. We’ll learn more about Northwestern the next two games, against Iowa on Saturday and next Wednesday at Wisconsin.
Billikens have a vise grip
Saint Louis has ripped off 11 straight – the Billikens lost to unbeaten Wichita State on Dec. 1 – because its defense doesn’t allow opponents to breathe, let alone make shots. You tend to win games when you restrict teams to 38.1 percent shooting overall and 26 percent from long distance.
Herb Sendek has to be feeling the heat, literally, at Arizona State. The Sun Devils stand at 2-3 in the Pac 12 after losses on the road at UCLA and top-ranked Arizona, which makes this week’s home games against Utah and Colorado crucial when you consider they hit the road again next week at Cal and Stanford. The Devils haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since James Harden left back in 2009.
When Irish felled Bruins
It was 40 years ago last Sunday when Notre Dame ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, the longest in men’s basketball history. Four years ago, Bill Walton told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he broke two bones in his spine in a game against Washington State and was still recovering when the Bruins traveled to South Bend to face the Irish. “We may have beaten Notre Dame if I hadn’t played. I probably hurt us,” Walton said.
But he certainly looked spry in the rematch the following week in Westwood when he scored 32 points in a 94-75 UCLA romp. This was once one of college basketball’s most fierce rivalries but the teams haven’t met since 2009. Too bad the schools didn’t get together this season to celebrate the anniversary for old time’s sake.
Four on the floor
The last three flirting with perfection – Arizona, Syracuse and Wichita State – are all national championship worthy. Throw in a team rounding into shape with two future NBA lottery picks, like, say, Kansas, and that would be a delightful Final Four indeed.