LAWRENCE — At some point over the next couple weeks, KU basketball coach Bill Self and Joel Embiid will talk about the future. We know this because Self says they will. Nothing formal. Nothing official. Just a coach trying to gauge what his player is thinking: Will Embiid, a freshman center, be back for his sophomore season, or is he leaning toward leaving for the NBA Draft?
These sort of conversations are not new, Self says, nor are they unique to Embiid, a rising star who could be the No. 1 overall pick after playing basketball for just three years. More to the point: Whatever Embiid happens to say the next time they talk, Self won’t put too much stock in it.
“Regardless of what they tell us,” Self says, “we’ve had kids tell us for sure they’re positively coming back and leave. We’ve had kids say they’re positively staying and they transfer.
“A lot of times what they say really doesn’t have much bearing on how you should prepare.”
So here it is early February, and the Embiid question is already among the most fascinating surrounding No. 8 Kansas, which will face West Virginia at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. Could a 7-foot center slated to be a top pick actually return to school for another year?
For the most part, the answer is unknowable, and the question may be premature. As Self says, the only person that really knows the answer to that question is Embiid. And what does it matter what he says in February anyway?
But this is the way the process works, so fan and media read the tea leaves from a season of quotes, dissecting them for any deeper meaning.
From mid-October, in an interview with The Eagle: “I don’t pay attention to (draft talk).”
From late January, in an interview with ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil: “ All of the great big men went to college at least two or three years. I think it’s a big factor.”
And from earlier this week: “I could come back, but I am not thinking about that right now.”
Back in October, KU freshman Andrew Wiggins made it quite clear that he would be in college for one season. There would be no charade.
But inside the KU program, many expected Embiid to always be at least a two-year player. So as his meteoric rise continues, the NBA questions persist.
The chatter increased during Kansas’ win at Baylor on Tuesday, when ESPN sideline reporter Jeff Goodman said that Embiid had told him that he was “definitely considering coming back to school.”
In the moments after the game, Self grew visibly irritated when the report came up, questioning its actual news value.
“What else could Joel say?” Self said.
For Self, this is among the most frustrating parts of the process. Embiid, who is averaging 10.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, has cemented himself as a near lock for the lottery. But Self dislikes the way college players are often viewed through an NBA prism, their draft stock rising and falling on a daily basis.
“It’s ridiculous that the so-called media people that cover it can’t let the kids just be college kids,” Self said. “That, to me, is ridiculous. You have one guy play one good game, and all of a sudden he moves up on the draft board. Well, that may be true in one writer’s name. But that’s not the way the NBA sees it. They’re going to see the kid play 20 times.”
But while the chatter can sometimes descend into empty speculation, Self still has to plan ahead. There are great benefits to having a lottery pick for one season.
No college coach would say no to a 7-foot rim protector with length and coordination.
But college coaches always have to worry about next season, too. The Jayhawks are currently still recruiting Texas high school center Myles Turner, another player with one-and-done potential. For obvious reasons, Turner might not be so keen on coming to KU if Embiid is still on the roster.
“I guarantee you if Joe says that he’s leaving or staying, it makes no difference,” Self said of his recruiting strategy. “We’d better have one (recruit) ready in case he does decide to go.”
On Friday, Self said he liked how next season’s roster was shaping up — no matter what Embiid decides to do. But mostly, Self just wants Embiid to enjoy these next two months. February can be a month for distractions among college basketball’s elite. Third parties, often runners for agents, will start trying to make contact with players and their families. Players begin to look to the future.
“If you’re in that position,” Self said, “you should just take a deep breath and enjoy it and let it play out as opposed to trying to force feed it. … When you try to force feed it, it very rarely plays out the way that you had expected it to.”
So the process continues, and Embiid keeps thinking about his future, Self will make a Plan B. On Friday, as his Jayhawks stood at 8-1 in the Big 12, still on track for a 10th straight Big 12 title, he offered this story.
Last year, few inside the KU program expected Ben McLemore to be a one-and-done player. But then he blew up, and the choice was made: McLemore had to leave.
So Self went out and signed Andrew Wiggins.
“I’m not sure we would have got Wiggs,” Self said, “if he would have stayed.”