Seated at a table with freshman teammate Brannen Greene to his left and Andrew Wiggins to his right, Joel Embiid bent over, closed his eyes and placed his head on the hard surface Sunday afternoon in Kansas University’s Booth Family Hall of Athletics.
The 7-foot, 240-pound Embiid feigned the need for a nap at the conclusion of a 21⁄2-hour autograph session on the first day of the second session of Bill Self’s basketball camp for youths.
“People want to know me, so I don’t have a problem with that (signing),” said Embiid, KU’s freshman center from Cameroon who attended The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., last season.
Embiid, Rivals.com’s No. 25-ranked player in the recruiting Class of 2013 who is beginning his third season of organized basketball, comes from a country where fans do want autographs — just not necessarily from basketball players.
“It’s mostly soccer players, because soccer is the sport everybody plays,” said Embiid, who indeed played soccer and volleyball as a child.
“I should have been a goalie, but I was a forward,” he added with a smile. “I was good for headers. That was my job.”
Embiid was good at soccer, but even better at volleyball.
“My dad wanted me to play professional volleyball,” Embiid said of his father, a former pro team handball player in Yaounde, Cameroon.
Instead, Embiid, who dabbled in basketball, was discovered by Cameroon native/NBA player Richard Mbah a Moute at a camp when Embiid was 15. Mbah a Moute, who played at UCLA and played last season for the Milwaukee Bucks, encouraged Embiid to attend Montverde Academy (Fla.), where he played basketball his junior year under the direction of coach Kevin Boyle. Playing behind 6-10 Dakari Johnson, Embiid elected to transfer to The Rock for his senior year, and he averaged 13.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks for a 33-4 team.
“I wasn’t surprised because I was working out every day,” Embiid said of his blossoming as a blue-chip basketball prospect. He chose KU over Florida, Texas, Marquette and Virginia.
“My junior year, I was playing JV. I also was working out with the varsity team, with my coach after practice, before practice. Once summer came (between junior and senior year) is when people really saw me. That’s when everybody was, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Embiid began his senior season unranked nationally, ending up as high as No. 6 by ESPN.com.
“He’s literally just getting started. His potential is untapped,” said KU coach Bill Self, who said he has found Embiid to be a “sponge” in early-summer workouts. “From a raw skill set, he’s big, long, quick, athletic, can move his feet, he can shoot over both shoulders, jump hook, things like that. It’s unbelievable for a guy playing three years to have that skill set.”
“(But) when somebody punches him in the mouth,” Self added, “how is he going to react? He’s light, kind of like Jeff (Withey) being able to hold his spot. There’s a lot of things he has to get better at, no question, but he’s going to be a fun kid to coach because he is a sponge and wants to be good.”
Embiid, who rooms with freshman Wayne Selden, said he already has learned a lot during the first session of summer school.
“Everybody is helping,” he said. “My first week ... working with coach (Andrea) Hudy in the weight room was kind of tough because it was my first time to really work like that. Everybody was pushing me. Everybody is helping me.”
He said he hasn’t received, or needed, much help regarding one of his strengths — shot-blocking.
“I mean, there’s no technique to block shots. I am already tall. I just have to jump straight up to block the shot,” Embiid said. “When I want to spike the ball (in volleyball), I had to jump straight up. Blocking is the same thing.”
Embiid, who speaks three languages — French, English and a dialect language of Cameroon — said he feels right at home in Lawrence.
“Since I’ve been in Kansas, I love everybody, what everybody is doing for me, I love it,” he said. “I’m here to work hard, trust coach Self, listen to what he says every day.
“My teammates ... right now we have a pretty good group. We can go all the way. Practices are really intense. Everybody loves to compete. It’s really fun.”
He said he misses his mom and dad — who recently were in the States for his graduation from The Rock — as well as his brother and sister, but “it’s not a big deal. I’m here now. I don’t know when, but I think they will come,” he added of his family watching him play a game in Allen Fieldhouse.
The book on Embiid: Here’s a profile on Embiid by Draftexpress.com’s Matt Kamalsky:
“The 7-foot center has only been playing the game for a few years, and while he remains raw, his upside is obvious.
“Standing out at first glance with his 240 pound frame and 7-5 wingspan, Embiid looks the part of a NBA center. Very new to the game of basketball, Embiid has a limited feel for how to make his presence felt consistently, and doesn’t always know his limitations, but flashed some intriguing tools on both ends of the floor (at Nike Hoop Summit last spring), even though he wasn’t at 100 percent (because of back spasms). Knocking down a 20-foot jump shot, making a nifty move to score a left handed hook shot in the post, and putting in some impressive efforts on the offensive glass, Embiid has some unique skills for a player only beginning to pick up the nuances of the game. On the defensive end, Embiid is a talented shot-blocker who has the tools to become an excellent defender on the ball and rotating over from the weak-side down the road. The Basketball Without Borders product is a bit foul prone and could stand to be more aggressive pursuing the ball off the rim, but his timing was impeccable at certain moments in practice.
“Noted for developing big men, the Kansas staff landed an ideal long-term project in Embiid. If he can get stronger and continue developing as an interior scorer, rebounder, and defender, it would not be surprising to see Embiid emerge as an extremely interesting NBA prospect down the road and a valuable contributor for the Jayhawks as they look to replace Jeff Withey.”
This, that: Here’s a pronunciation guide for the KU freshman center: Joel (Joe-ELL) Embiid (Em-BEAD). ... KU freshman Andrew Wiggins, who arrived on campus Saturday, took part in Sunday’s autograph session for the campers. He will not be conducting any media interviews until he’s fully enrolled in class and attending class with all paperwork complete, KU officials report.