LAWRENCE — Joel Embiid bends slightly to get through the doorway, and then bends even deeper to peer into the refrigerator. He pushes aside chilled bottles of Coca-Cola and Fanta and then, upon getting to the very back of the cooler, lets his massive shoulders slump one last time.
There’s no pink lemonade. Again.
This is the guy who’s suddenly the biggest thing in college basketball? The 7-footer who’s gone from raw, unheralded prospect to phenom? The guy who has started to overshadow fellow freshman Andrew Wiggins while leading No. 8 Kansas to the top of the Big 12?
Yep, this is the guy NBA scouts believe could be the No. 1 pick in the June draft, worrying not about his future millions but his inability to land a bottle of Minute Made.
“Out again?” Embiid asks one of the members of the Kansas communications staff.
“You keep drinking it all!” she replies with a smile.
The friendly ribbing is part of Embiid’s earnest naivety. It’s almost as if the best player on one of the nation’s hottest teams doesn’t realize just how good he’s become.
He runs like a gazelle and his footwork honed on the soccer fields of his native Cameroon would probably astonish Fred Astaire. His touch is smooth as velvet and his work ethic so unfailing that some think he could be the next Hakeem Olajuwon.
“Joel has a chance to be an NBA all-star,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “There’s a lot of great players you recruit, and they have great careers for you. But do you look at them and say, ‘He can be one of the best 24 players in the world?’ He can be in that class.”
The happy-go-lucky freshman only averages 11 points and eight rebounds, but everyone knows numbers can be misleading. Just ask Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who watched Embiid go for 16 points and nine boards in a high-profile showdown at Allen Fieldhouse last weekend.
“Goodness, he’s so talented,” Ford said afterward, shaking his head. “He’s so good.”
Embiid’s backstory is just as good, the kind of stuff Disney spins into feature films.
He didn’t pick up a basketball until a few years ago, when a friend informed him that very few 7-footers succeed in soccer. A couple months later, Embiid was lured to a basketball camp in the capital of Yaounde run by Timberwolves forward Luc Mbah a Moute, one of just two players from Cameroon to have played in the NBA.
Embiid didn’t think he was good enough to compete at the camp, and even now admits “I didn’t do too good.”
Mbah a Moute, however, saw unpolished potential.
“He was doing stuff that guys been playing basketball for years do,” Mbah a Moute told The Associated Press. “Some stuff that guys his size have trouble with, he was doing it with ease, like running in transition, catching the ball, spinning and finishing.”
Mbah a Moute knew Embiid only needed a chance. He persuaded Embiid’s parents to let him move 6,000 miles to Florida, and helped enroll him at Montverde Academy, one of the best high school programs in the country.
Still, Embiid was so raw that he was still playing junior varsity two years ago, or stuck on the bench behind Kentucky recruit Dakari Johnson. But Mbah a Moute knew Embiid would make strides if he could just get on the court, so he started looking for other places to play. Together, they stumbled upon The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., and unknowingly answered a prayer.
“One day, I literally got down on my knees and prayed God would send me a 7-foot center,” said Justin Harden, the school’s coach and athletic director. “And he sent me Joel.”
Harden is joking, of course. But the truth is he accepted Embiid sight-unseen.
“They kind of felt like he was underappreciated,” Harden said. “But when he came in, you could tell the way he moved, the way he shot, his coordination — you could tell he was special.”
Special in the kind of way that can’t be taught.
“I played soccer,” Harden said, “and he has just phenomenal footwork, flipping the ball back and forth, up in the air, between his legs. And then we’d play dodge ball and the kid would throw the ball and I’d have to tell him, “Joel, relax! You’re going to kill somebody!”
Several schools started to recruit Embiid, and he ultimately chose Kansas over Texas and Florida. At the time, Self thought he had the potential to be the No. 1 pick in the draft in a few years, but that timetable has advanced more rapidly than anybody could have imagined.
Now, after coming off the bench early in the season, Embiid has become perhaps the most valuable player on a team loaded with pro prospects.
“Amazing talent,” offered one NBA scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity because league rules prevent him from speaking about players still in college. “I think he’s the No. 1 prospect because of his steady improvement and being a freaky 7-foot athlete.”
That’s assuming Embiid puts his name in the draft.
Lounging in the bleachers at Allen Fieldhouse this week, sweat dripping from a recently ended practice, Embiid told the AP that he’s still not sure whether he’s ready for the NBA.
“When I see those guys,” he said with a shake of his head, “man, they’re really big.”
But what about the millions of dollars sitting on the table? What about the glamor that comes with playing in the league, and the chance to see compete against the best in the world?
What about all that pink lemonade he could buy?
“Things could change,” Embiid said with a smile, “but I love college. I’m having so much fun on campus, with my teammates. When we play, we have 16,000 people. It’s crazy. It’s not the same thing when you’re in the league. So I don’t know. We’ll just have to see.”