A Gameday Portrait – Kansas Freshman Joel Embiid

There’s a factoid about Joel Embiid that is existentially surprising and expressively tired. In every KU game, it has been mentioned, and that won’t change. No announcer all year will be able to stop himself from saying it. Here it is: Joel Embiid only started playing basketball three years ago. “Three years, can you believe it? Some of his opponents have played college basketball longer than that.” You’ve been told this before, and you will be told 100 more times. You’ll definitely hear it when Kansas plays Toledo tonight on ESPN. This theme will be ongoing and annoying.

And yet who can blame any announcer? Every now and then, an athlete’s background narrative perfectly explains the fan experience of watching that athlete. Embiid’s relative infancy in the game of basketball clarifies what you think you’re seeing. He’s not a step slow on his help defense, he’s a step faster than you’d expect him to be. You’re not seeing inconsistent post production, you’re seeing a pivot ballerino on his first night of rehearsal. Like an eyases testing its wings or a tiger cub wrestling, you process the tangible potential of natural power and grace as much as the clumsiness of new movements.

Even at the moment of publishing, that last paragraph is probably outdated, at least as a description of performance. Bleacher Report describes Embiid’s true basketball childhood from high school, “In the same game, Embiid got hit in the stomach by a guard’s pass, tripped and fell coming off a screen, and had the ball bounce off his foot when he was trying to dribble past a defender.” His teammates laughed at him. Only three years later, he is producing as a freshman starter at one of the nation’s premier programs. It is clear that Embiid will be a top five pick in the NBA Draft whenever he chooses to go. And that unanimously accepted valuation of his talent will inevitably re-center conversation around the inexperience, because we rarely get to witness the becoming of a genius.

When you hear announcers tell you that Embiid just started doing this thing called basketball, the realization of genius is the idea they’re daring you to think. The natural precedent for Embiid’s becoming is Hakeem Olajuwon, since they’re both foreign seven-footers who didn’t start playing until after their 15th birthday. Yet as it is with precedents in most any field, we don’t have established expectations to serve as framework for proper appreciation. Hakeem existed as a nice “coming to America” story that was suddenly great. He averaged eight points and six rebounds as a freshman at Houston and then a double-double for the next 11 years of his career. Nobody cared much about Hakeem as a freshman and so he went unnoticed. It’s like if you caught a Mumford & Sons performance at some West London dive in 2008 and you didn’t even take so much as a picture. Nobody believes your hipster boasting. Now you take pictures at every concert.

And that’s what makes Embiid so enjoyable to watch. You can be just as invested in the evolution as the realization. While other players tinker with nuances to a game practiced for over a decade, Embiid is making adjustments on a macro scale. Every game could be that moment when possibly great becomes factually great, when talent is actualized into skill. Maybe Embiid isn’t a late-blooming basketball savant. Perhaps he’s just a very athletic 7-footer who will plateau faster and flatter than we expect. Everything we’ve seen up until now begs to differ. Especially if you consider that he’s only been playing for three years. Three years! Can you believe that?

Telling you again in case you hadn’t heard,
Dusty “3 Years, guys!” Riedesel

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