Center Joel Embiid (Cameroon/The Rock) lost the final game of his junior season as his Montverde squad gave up 47 points in the final quarter and overtime in a heartbreaking loss to Findlay Prep at the National High School Invitational. Embiid, just months into his high school career, came off the bench and was tasked with slowing down the Brandon Ashley freight train. He couldn’t as Ashley scored 25 points in the second half and fouled Embiid out of the game in what seemed like only a few possessions.
Montverde coach Kevin Boyle kept saying before the NHSI that Embiid was going to be good. However, at the time, the 6-foot-10 center appeared overmatched by Prep’s frontcourt.
“Against Findlay, Brandon Ashley was good,” Embiid said. “But if I played a game against him now, I would beat him. I was new. I didn’t know how to guard the post. Now, I can guard centers or power forward.”
Looking back on that day last March, no one would have predicted Embiid may have been the best big man prospect on the floor. UNLV’s Anthony Bennett was there. Ashley was a monster and Embiid, well, he was a fawn in the woods. It just wasn’t his time.
Now, in the fall of 2013, it’s most definitely Embiid’s time. The transformation from last March to October has been phenomenal. This is a 6-11 center with great length, fluid movement, natural shot-blocking instincts and an offensive game that is showing signs of life. Instead of panicking when double-teamed – something he did at times -- last season, Embiid consistently finds the open man. In actuality, last year there was hardly a need to double team him as he wasn’t much of a factor due to his inexperience.
It’s amazing to think that Embiid came to the States last October and played his first organized ball game in January. Back in Cameroon, he never watched a college game and NBA games came on at 2 a.m. “I touched the ball but I wasn’t on teams or practicing or shooting,” he said. “When I saw people play, I would take the ball and maybe shoot layups. I played soccer when I was young and I played volleyball for five years.”
Embiid was tossed a basketball lifeline by fellow countryman and current NBA player Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The Milwaukee Buck saw him at one of his camps in Africa and then got Embiid involved with Basketball Beyond Borders. Mbah a Moute attended Montverde himself where he played for current George Washington assistant Kevin Sutton.
Think about this for a second. The sum total of Embiid’s experience includes two camps in Africa, being schooled by Ashley and half a season at Montverde. Based off what I saw last weekend, it’s conceivable that this young man could finish the year as the best center prospect in the country.
The one thing fueling Embiid’s ascension this year – outside of his immense talent – is his confidence. Although to obtain it, he had to leave one of the best high school coaches in the country. The prospects of having to battle for consistent minutes in a frontcourt alongside Dakari Johnson and Devin Williams made his decision a bit easier.
“I left Montverde because I wanted to play a lot,” Embiid said. “If I stayed at Montverde, I was going to play but not like I’m going to play at The Rock. Everybody told me I needed game experience. Now I’m confident and I like walking out into the arena and playing.”
Embiid’s English, much like his post game, is a work in progress but you get the picture. He knew Montverde’s frontcourt was crowded and he needed game reps to unlock his potential. So far, Embiid’s been correct. He got better right before our eyes during the Nike Team Florida Fall Workout last Saturday.
The natural tools are there plus he’s an intelligent, diligent young man surrounded by coaches and sound guidance. There’s a path for success laid out for him. His job is to continue working (he is), get better (he has) and commit himself to learning every day (he will).
College coaches have taken notice.
According to his high school coach Justin Harden, Embiid will visit Texas this weekend. “He’s been saying it’s a top choice and Texas was holding out a (visit) date,” Harden said. The following weekend, Embiid will be in Lawrence for Kansas’ Midnight Madness. Virginia will be his third trip on Oct. 19-20.
Marquette and Florida are also in the mix. Trust me, every big time program in the country will call this week. This kid’s father is 6-6, mom is 6-2 and there’s no other way to read this situation: Embiid is on the cusp of becoming an elite prospect.
Potential is a dangerous word that should be used with caution. But with Embiid, it’s applicable. He’s a newbie. Just a pup in this basketball world. Soon, that pup will have a bark and then a bite and eventually he’s going to be quite the player.
“I want to make the NBA like Luc did and help people," Embiid said. "If I do, I’ll take care of them and my family.”