NBA Front Office – ESPN

You’ve seen the Olajuwon comp. Question remains: Is it valid?

NBA COMPARABLES

Ceiling: Anthony Davis
Floor: Brook Lopez
Embiid isn’t quite the athlete Davis is, but he has the rare ability to be both a dominant scorer and premier defender. If he struggles to stay healthy, like a lot of 7-footers, he’ll have a Lopez-like impact, teasing his franchise and his fan base by showing only flashes of top-end talent. — D.T.

CHAD FORD’S MOCK TALK

If Dante Exum is available at No. 4, the Magic will have serious interest. But if Embiid falls to No. 4, he might be too tantalizing to pass up, especially since Orlando has another pick in the lottery at No. 12. The Magic are in desperate need of a rim protector and an athletic frontcourt player to pair with Nikola Vucevic and the Kansas center gives them just that. If Embiid’s injury scares them off, Noah Vonleh is also a possibility here.

MAGIC’S REAL PLUS-MINUS

The hope? That as Victor Oladipo and the other kids mature, Embiid can provide his defensive prowess (2.6 BPG at Kansas last season) next to offense-oriented Vucevic. — B.D.

Photography by Ture Lillegraven

“I’m not very good yet”

BY ELI SASLOW

Joel Embiid arrives at the 22nd floor of a Hollywood high-rise wearing sweat-stained basketball shorts and size 17 sandals, ready for his first appointment with a personal tailor. The tailor has flown in from New York, where she usually dresses movie stars and Yankees, and she opens her bag of luxury fabrics and sets them on a table in front of Embiid. “I don’t really know how this works,” Embiid tells her, and no one in the room seems particularly surprised, since so much of his existence in the days before the NBA draft is defined by what he still doesn’t know.

The appointment was made at the suggestion of Embiid’s agent, Darren Matsubara, after he learned that his soon-to-be $20 million client owned only one suit: an off-the-rack special from Rochester Big & Tall, a charcoal combination that was in fact neither big nor tall enough. Matsubara decided it would be a bad first impression for the potential No. 1 pick to be introduced on national TV wearing pants that looked like unintentional capris. So in came Jennifer from Élevée, maker of $15,000 custom suits, to study Embiid’s shoulder width and take down his sizes, measuring him for a life where nothing quite fits.

“What kind of a look are you hoping to have for the draft?” she asks him now.

“What do you mean by ‘a look’?” he says.

“Like, maybe some kind of three-piece?” she suggests.

“What’s a three-piece?” he asks.

Embiid is in this room — in this position — because coaches and scouts regard him as perhaps the fastest learner in the history of basketball, but no one is capable of mastering this much so quickly. Less than three years ago, he was dressing in white-and-black school uniforms in Yaoundé, Cameroon, where his best sports were volleyball and soccer. Less than two years ago, he was wearing mostly warm-ups, since he rarely left the bench for his high school basketball team in Florida. Less than one year ago, he arrived at the University of Kansas expecting to redshirt and then play four years of college basketball before maybe making it to the NBA.

And now here he is, barely 20 and one of the sport’s rarest commodities: a shot blocker who can run the floor and shoot midrange jumpers, a 7-foot center who moves with rhythm and musicality. To many NBA scouts, Embiid is not only the draft’s most talented player but also its most intriguing, an experiment for the team that selects him. He is a build-your-own superstar — a player with no bad habits to unlearn, no sense of ego or entitlement to manage. But he is also entirely unproven, a top prospect who self-associates more as a beginner. “I am not very good yet,” he says. “Of all the great players a team could choose right now, I am probably not the best. But maybe one day I will be.”

The tailor hands him a binder with photos of the company’s most exclusive outfits, but instead of focusing on the clothes, Embiid studies the faces of the athletes and actors 
who are modeling them. “I think I know some of these people,” he says, flipping through the binder, pointing to each picture and then quizzing himself. Most of the names he doesn’t remember.

“Who is this one?” he asks his manager, Dani Goor, pointing to a picture of Aaron Rodgers.

“And this?” he says, staring at Ryan Gosling.

“Doesn’t this guy play basketball?” he asks when he sees a picture of Terrell Owens.

Finally he reaches the back of the binder. “Did you see anything you’d want to wear?” the tailor asks, but Embiid shakes his head. “I can’t decide. It is a little overwhelming,” he says. Less than four years ago, he had never visited the United States, never spoken a sentence in English, never watched an entire professional basketball game, never even heard of the NBA draft. “I need a little more time to figure this out,” he tells the tailor.

He goes back through the binder again, once more scanning the faces, until he comes upon one he is sure he recognizes. It is a thin face with a wide nose, a goatee and a whisper of a mustache. “Who is that?” he says, and the name is so near to his mind that it is driving him crazy. His manager leans in to take a look at the book, and she follows his stare to a picture of a face she instantly knows. “Are you kidding?” she asks, because Embiid can be playful. Maybe he is joking, she thinks. But she can’t be sure.

“That’s Kevin,” she says, tapping her finger against a picture of the most valuable player in the league that Embiid is about to enter. “That’s Kevin Durant.”


EMBIID IS SPENDING these final weeks before the draft at what his agency calls boot camp, training with eight other future NBA players as they study the fine points of a transition to a career as a professional athlete. He lives in his own apartment for the first time, and a nutritionist goes grocery shopping with him and shows him how to prepare healthy breakfasts. A financial adviser teaches him about investing; a branding expert shows him how to best communicate with fans on Twitter. He works daily with a yoga instructor and a weight trainer and two physical therapists and a sports scientist who records his weight balance as he moves. Each night brings another activity meant to prepare him for the NBA life: a movie premiere, front-row tickets to Jimmy Kimmel or courtside seats at a playoff game. He is followed most everywhere by Matsubara, Goor and an intern in charge of his transportation — all of whom mostly worry that Embiid is having to deal with too much, too soon.

“It’s a pretty fast learning curve,” Matsubara tells him one day.

“By now, I’m pretty used to that,” Embiid says.

He started playing basketball in 2011, mostly because he was bored. There were a few outdoor hoops at the sports club where he played high-level volleyball in Cameroon, and he started spending his breaks throwing a volleyball toward the rim and then dunking it, until one day a basketball coach saw him and recruited him for a local team. That coach gave Embiid a DVD about Hakeem Olajuwon titled Hakeem the Dream. It was a compilation of backstory and highlights from Olajuwon’s journey from Nigeria to the U.S. and eventually to two NBA championships. Embiid replayed the video twice each night and practiced the moves the next morning, honing his jump hooks and shoulder fakes. Everything he knew about basketball came from rewatching those 49 minutes. “I kind of got obsessed,” Embiid says.

He is from an upper-middle-class family — the son of an army colonel and a mother who traveled regularly to France — and his parents had gifted him with both a sense of the possibilities beyond Cameroon and the means to pursue them. They bought him a basketball and paid for an Internet package that allowed Embiid to watch his first moments of the NBA, a playoff game that aired at 3 a.m. Early in the summer of 2011, they enrolled their oldest son in a basketball camp run by Cameroon’s only NBA player, forward Luc Mbah a Moute. There were 50 players at the camp, and after the first day Embiid concluded that he was one of the worst. He traveled whenever he touched the ball and mistook opponents for teammates. But Mbah a Moute watched Embiid play and saw something else: a novice basketball player who nonetheless seemed engineered to play the sport. He had the easy footwork of a former soccer player, the quick leaping ability of an elite volleyball spiker and hand-eye coordination passed down from his father, Thomas, who had played professional handball. At the end of the basketball camp, Mbah a Moute invited the top five players to another camp for elite African players. He chose Embiid first.

“Are you crazy?” Embiid said. “I’m not in the top 30 players here.”

“Good thing I know more than you,” Mbah a Moute told him.

They traveled together in August 2011 to the international camp. The walls of the gym were lined with college and high school coaches from the United States, including one from Montverde Academy in Florida, where Mbah a Moute had gone to school. The coach offered Embiid a scholarship and an I-20 visa to come to the United States. He went home to pack, but his father didn’t want him to go. His son had not even graduated from high school yet, and he had never been away from his family or visited the United States. Embiid was an international prospect in volleyball, and his father believed that was his better sport.

“How do we know this is the best future for you?” his father asked, so Embiid decided to enlist Mbah a Moute’s help in convincing him. Mbah a Moute tried to tell the colonel about basketball and the riches of the NBA, but some of the specifics were difficult to translate.

“Some players make $50 million,” Mbah a Moute said, and the colonel misunderstood.

“Fifty thousand dollars?” he said, still impressed, and he agreed to let his son go.

Photography by Bo Rader/MCT/Zuma Press

EMBIID SPENT THE first year regretting that he had come. The coach who had recruited him to Montverde took another job, and the school’s new coach assigned him to the junior varsity squad. He vomited during warm-ups of the team’s first practice after 20 minutes spent running suicides. He had never run sprints or lifted weights, and he got bumped around in the paint. “I came here to play basketball, and I never was good enough to play in the games,” he says. “I would get in, mess up, and a few teammates would be kind of laughing at me.”

A few of those teammates started to refer to him by a nickname, Big Quiet, because 
he often went unnoticed. He walked to a McDonald’s near campus for lunch every day with a few other African players and learned English off the menu on the restaurant wall, ordering chicken sandwiches for three weeks until he knew enough to order something new, and then something new after that.

English was his fourth language, after French, Spanish and a local dialect, Bassa, and he became fluent within a year. Once he started to understand what his coaches were saying, the game started to make sense. He became a defensive force on the AAU summer circuit, blocking a few shots each game even though he still had the endurance to play for only 10 or 15 minutes. He transferred to a high school called the Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., and the coach, Justin Harden, gave him a daily workout schedule: 30 minutes of running, 30 minutes of weights, 200 jumpers and 100 free throws — in addition to practice. He was still one of the team’s most unpolished players, and he occasionally made embarrassing mistakes. But in his best moments, he made the game look easy, and he led the team to a state championship. “Nobody ever talked about how good he was, because he wasn’t great yet,” Harden says. “But every college program in America could see how good he was becoming.”

Kansas, Texas, Florida and Louisville all offered scholarships. Embiid had never heard of any of them, so he searched on Google, trying to memorize which team went with which mascot. He sought advice from Mbah a Moute, who suggested Kansas because of coach Bill Self’s reputation for helping big men improve.

“Most kids cannot be objective about themselves, and he actually can,” Self says. “He knows what he needs to learn, and he studies. He can see something one time and then do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he could learn to play guard and have success. There’s not another big man I would ever say that about.”

At Kansas, Embiid was the ambassador between two worlds — beloved by Cameroonians who knew little about basketball and by Kansas fans who knew nothing about Cameroon. His teammates imagined Africa as a place of jungles and tribal war paint, so he decided to have some fun with them while also burnishing a reputation for toughness. “Did I tell you about the time I killed a lion?” he asked them, inventing a story about having thrown a spear tipped with poison and then carrying a lion on his back for a mile. In fact, he had grown up in a nice house in a neighborhood of diplomats in a city of 2.5 million, and the only lion he had ever seen was in a cage at the zoo. “Most of those guys still think that story is true,” Embiid says. “It started as a joke, but then they respected me after that.”

When his parents came to visit, they had trouble making sense of America. His mother asked a Kansas administrator: How is college in the U.S. different from high school? His father asked a KU assistant coach: What does it mean to set a screen? In February, when it became clear Embiid would make millions in the NBA, he suggested to his parents that they might want to move to the U.S. Why not enjoy a mansion, some spending money, a few nice cars? He was starting to enjoy the U.S. for its vampire TV shows and its Shirley Temples. But his mother said she didn’t want to leave her job working for the government, and his younger brother is still in eighth grade. “Their lives 
are in Cameroon,” says Embiid, who has yet to go back for a visit. “They are happy for me, but they don’t want any of this for themselves. They don’t understand it.”

Neither do his friends in Africa, most of whom have suddenly started playing basketball themselves. How hard can it be? They know of only one basketball player, a novice who spent a few years practicing and is now on the verge of a guaranteed fortune.

“Now everybody in Cameroon thinks basketball is easy,” Embiid says. “They think they can have what I have. It is a whole country of No. 1 picks.”


THE ORIGINAL GOAL was to keep the location of Embiid’s workouts a secret, but secrets like this never last long. By the time Embiid arrives at the high school gym in Santa Monica one morning in late May, a few dozen basketball insiders are already in the bleachers, clipboards and lattes in hand. A videographer films Embiid as he warms up his back and stretches his legs. Mike Dunleavy Sr., a former NBA coach and general manager, has volunteered to run the morning workout, mostly so he can watch Embiid from up close. Kids who attend an adjacent elementary school migrate over during recess, carrying Sharpies and pressing their faces against the gym’s windows and doors.

“Every day for me is a tryout,” Embiid says as he laces his shoes. “That’s the situation I’m dealing with.”

What he’s dealing with is the usual scrutiny of a potential No. 1 pick, amplified by the fact that his last college game ended with a stress fracture in his back, which kept him from playing in the NCAA tournament. Part of him wanted to stay at Kansas, if only to slow his life down by spending two years in the same place, but Mbah a Moute and even Self saw better reasons for him to go. Why continue to risk his back for more years when his draft stock would never improve? Now he has gone through rehab and feels healthy — “100 percent,” he says — but NBA teams are leery of investing their futures in a big man with a history of back problems. These informal workouts at a tiny high school gym have become the focal point of the NBA offseason. How is Embiid moving? How’s his stamina? How often does he ice?

“How are you feeling, big guy?” Dunleavy asks as he watches Embiid run the floor during a drill, set a screen and then, a few minutes later, knock down six consecutive 3-pointers. Embiid is both the biggest and the most athletic player on a court filled with likely first-round picks; he dribbles by an opposing center on one possession, then posts up a forward on the next. “I guess I’ve got my answer,” Dunleavy says as the practice continues. “You’re feeling pretty good.”

With a few minutes left in the workout, the players begin to scrimmage. Embiid blocks a shot, grabs the loose ball and dribbles the length of the court, stopping just inside the 3-point line. He is guarded by two players, so he turns his back to the basket, pretending to retreat. Then he shakes his shoulders to fake one way, like he watched Olajuwon do so many times on the video. He spins the opposite way and jumps into the air, fading away from the basket. He shoots from 22 feet, and the ball drops cleanly through the basket. Both defenders shake their heads. “Damn,” one says.

Dunleavy watches from the sideline and starts to laugh, and before long most of the people in the gym are laughing too.

Everybody is appreciating the magic they have just witnessed — everyone except Embiid, who looks mostly perplexed. Not long ago, the laughter he heard on a basketball court came for different reasons. He wants to be sure.

“Coach,” he says, jogging over to Dunleavy. “That was good, right?”

NBA Front Office – ESPN

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