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October 23, 2013

In Joel Embiid, the Kansas Jayhawks have a star-to-be

Andrew Wiggins is the one with the 40-some-inch vertical and enough hype that his necktie trends on Twitter. But to many in basketball circles, the most intriguing guy on the Kansas team is Jayhawks big man Joel Embiid, a potential top-10 NBA pick at the end of the season. Coach Bill Self calls Embiid “a young Hakeem Olajuwon.”

The making of a basketball star is done in steps. Slow steps. You can see it, track it, but you have to watch closely. You have to be patient. Imaginative. See the 7-foot frame? The soccer midfielder’s feet? The quick jumps?

At one point, he catches on the left block, fakes to the middle, spins to the baseline and one step later dunks on the opposite side of the rim. The whole thing takes two seconds, maybe less. It is breathtaking.

There aren’t a lot of men on the planet who can do what Joel Embiid just made look so easy, let alone 19-year-old freshmen. This is what the line of NBA scouts watching Kansas basketball practice focus on. They also see the tentativeness. The uncertainty. The spurts of disappearance.

The most famous player in the building is Andrew Wiggins, of course. He’s the one with the bedhead and the 40-some-inch vertical and enough hype that his necktie trends on Twitter. But the most intriguing guy to many in basketball circles is Embiid. He’s the one who probably won’t start for Kansas at the beginning of the season and who many think will be a top 10 NBA pick at the end of it.

That is, if the making of a basketball star stays on track. In slow steps. Today is one of the slower steps. Baby steps, you might say.

“Joe!” KU coach Bill Self screams. “The pacifier is right over there, if you need to pick it up.”

Embiid looks across the court at his coach. Self smiles. Embiid smiles back. They have the same goal. They both know Self has a point, and they both know Embiid has an overwhelming stock of talent.

“A young Hakeem Olajuwon,” Self says.

Joel Embiid is on his third sport. Soccer came first, growing up in Cameroon. Then volleyball. That’s the sport his father thought would become a profession. Now everyone sees that basketball will make Joel rich.

This is all so new to him. Embiid came to America to play his junior year of high school in Florida. He first dribbled a basketball six years ago, when he was 12, with his cousin. They’d mess around a little bit between soccer games. Nothing serious. Then he kept growing, and those feet never slowed down.

He played forward in soccer, if you can believe that, not goalkeeper — a 7-foot-5 wingspan wasted. Eventually, when Embiid was 16 or 17, he played his first organized basketball game. His first coach gave him a tape of Olajuwon, told Joel that this was another tall African with quick feet who eventually outgrew soccer. Study his feet, the coach said. Do what he does.

“So that’s what I’m trying to do,” Embiid says. “I’m trying to become like him.”

Embiid is on his third year of organized basketball. You will see this during games. If you remember the old movie Blue Chips, well, Embiid has a certain Neon Boudeaux thing going on here.

The potential is in an overpowering mix of athleticism, grace and length. The holes are in knowledge, in feel. He is 240 pounds and knows he must get stronger. Post moves are coming easily, that natural smoothness he learned in soccer still helpful. But there is no history with this sport, so you’ll see him go left when he should go right. You’ll see him fade when he should hook-shot.

The interesting part is that, so far, he is a fairly well-kept secret. Those “young Olajuwon” comparisons are real and tantalizing. But among the general public, playing alongside the biggest star in college basketball this year will help keep Embiid in the shade.

But the attention is coming. And faster than anyone expected.

“There’s no question he’s better than anybody thought,” Self says.

When Embiid committed to Kansas, the idea was that he would be a four-year player. He went into his senior year of high school unknown and unranked by any major recruiting service, and ended it ranked as high as sixth by

As he begins his first year of college basketball, the growing momentum that he could be a top 10 pick in the next draft creates an awkward context. In some ways, this is the worst situation for a major-college program: a player so raw he needs time to contribute but so talented the NBA will soon make him rich.

The attitude is there. Embiid takes extra shots after practice, puts in extra time figuring out when to spin and when to hook. As Self says, “he’s just so eager to learn,” so maybe this journey will pick up speed.

Wiggins is the ready-made star, the one getting the magazine covers. Embiid’s development will take more time, with more struggles.

But for KU and its most-hyped season in recent memory, Embiid’s progress from neophyte to lottery pick will be just as crucial.

“I just want to get better,” he says. “We want to win a national championship. So if that happens, that’s good. But I don’t pay attention to (draft talk). I just want to get better.”

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