The NBA hype machine works in mysterious ways. Take Andrew Wiggins, for example. A teenager who was billed to be the NBA's next great star before he ever stepped on the hardwood for his first dribble as a freshman at Kansas.
He was the most hyped prep player since LeBron James and had a YouTube highlight reel every bit as sensational.
Now? The freshman phenom has been anything but phenomenal to start his freshman year. In fact, Wiggins isn't even able to claim he's the best prospect on his own roster. That title now belongs to Joel Embiid, whose rise up NBA draft boards perfectly captures in a microcosm his evolution as a basketball player.
As recently as a month ago, Embiid rode the bench, a backup big man on a supremely talented Jayhawks roster. Now, Embiid, all seven feet of him, towers atop the college basketball world, and perhaps the entirety of 2014's loaded class and the NBA talents contained therein.
Two weeks ago in this space, I wrote that Embiid would blossom into the most dominating big man since Greg Oden now that he'd been inserted into the starting lineup, installing himself as the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in June's lottery.
Just a handful of days later, as new big boards emerged, NBA personnel people also began to have their eyes opened to the young man from Cameroon who, like Hakeem Olajuwon, grew up playing soccer rather than basketball. ESPN's Chad Ford installed Embiid as the new No. 1 overall player, as did Draft Express, while SI.com's Chris Mannix has him second.
In the month of January, Embiid is averaging 11.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, and an astonishing 4.8 blocks per contest, while playing just 24.8 minutes a game. And it wasn't like KU was playing Our Sisters of the Poor here. Kansas squared off against five ranked opponents, three of whom either are now, or were at the time of the game ranked inside the top 10.
Against Oklahoma State, Embiid patrolled the paint the way few players can, finishing with a school and Big-12 freshman record eight swats.
On 26 shots in the paint, the Cowboys managed just 22 points, a testament to not only Embiid's ability to block shots, but alter them as well. Great defensive big men like Roy Hibbert find ways to get blocks, but their sheer presence alter shots at the rim, while further acting as a deterrent to opponents pondering a drive to the hoop.
Embiid carried Kansas, the way Wiggins was supposed to, against Oklahoma State, in a game where Wiggins was such a non-factor as to elicit Manti Te'o girlfriend jokes on Twitter. Embiid, perhaps for the first time, caught more of the attention from NBA evaluators than his long hyped teammate.
Same GM: "As disappointing as Wiggins has been, thats how impressive Embiid is."— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 18, 2014
CBS Sports columnist Gary Parish relays the story of Jayhawks coach Bill Self telling Embiid before the season that he could someday be the No. 1 pick:
"Yes, Self meant what he said about Embiid being the No. 1 pick. But Self figured it'd be in the 2015 NBA Draft or maybe even the 2016 NBA Draft, meaning his preseason message was basically that Embiid would someday be college basketball's most coveted pro prospect if he stayed in school two or three years, worked really hard and developed. Fast-forward to the present, and it's becoming more obvious by the game that Self might've underestimated the timeline because Embiid seems capable of accomplishing in two or three months what most thought could take two or three years."
Although tempo-free numbers are hard to come by the further back you go, which would provide a more specific apples-to-apples comparison, here is how Embiid stacks up against some of the great NBA big men of recent time as freshman on a per 40-minute basis: (statistics via sports-reference.com and statsheet.com)
There are some more advanced metrics to compare Embiid to more recent lottery big men.
Clearly, if Embiid can stack up against players like Shaq and The Dream, he's capable of playing on a level with players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin. More to the point, Embiid's immense talent provides the building blocks for a potentially indomitable NBA force in the paint, particularly in a league devoid of quality big men.
|Name||ORB%||DRB%||Block rate||Offensive rating|
In short: Embiid has become the new face of the 2014 NBA Draft.
Best of the rest: Updates on other NBA prospects
Jabari Parker, F, Duke -- Parker finally got back on track after nearly a month-long lull for Duke's fantastic forward. Against North Carolina State, Parker scored an efficient 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting plus seven rebounds in just 26 minutes. He also had 10 attempts from the charity stripe, which tied a season high and perhaps pointed to a change in Parker's game.
Against NC State, Parker got into the paint more often, and either finished or drew contact. If he can learn to establish his game in the paint, where he is too strong for most wings and too quick for most bigs, that opens up his three-point shooting game and allows him to get better looks.
Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas Jayhawks -- The last week for Wiggins summarizes his game at this point: Spectacular one minute, wildly disappointing the next. Against No. 8 Iowa State, Wiggins dominated the boards, grabbing 19 rebounds and showing the type of aggressiveness on the glass that his type of athletic talent demands. if he wants to be his team's leading rebounder, even on a team with Joel Embiid, he's capable of doing that. He added 17 points in a huge win for the Jayhawks.
The next game, a pivotal Big-12 matchup against Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State, Wiggins shoots 1-of-5, grabs just two rebounds and scores a meager three points. ESPN's Jeff Goodman tweeted that the NBA's eyes are clearly on Wiggins in situations like this, and he's yet to consistently rise to the occasion.
NBA GM in attendance in Kansas just texted me: "Really would like to see Andrew Wiggins do something in this game. Push envelope."— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 18, 2014
Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky -- Randle appears back on track as a scorer, totaling 20 and 18 in two games over the past week, while shooting 11-of-20 from the floor and 15-of-19 from the line combined. Randle pounded Arkansas on the glass in a game Kentucky lost, snagging 14 boards, but was soundly whipped by Jarnell Stokes who pulled down 15 rebounds to Randle's two against Tennessee.
Randle did manage to make his first career three-point shot, and from the looks of his shot mechanics, can probably develop into a decent shooter from distance, the same way his NBA doppelganger Zach Randolph has done. Despite not rebounding -- and frankly, a one-game blip in a season where Randle has gotten out of bed with a double-double is not troubling -- Randle poured in 18 points, displaying his new-found range in the process.
Marcus Smart -- The last four games, Smart is averaging 20.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, six assists, and 3.3 steals. Against Kansas on Saturday, Smart struggled to find the range on his jumper, shooting just 3-of-14, but added 10 boards and nine assists, to go along with four steals. He doesn't have to be shooting well to dominate a game, and few players are able to do that on both ends of the floor.
On one play, he even went up to contest a Joel Embiid alley-oop—an ill-advised move against someone that big and explosive -- but Smart nearly made the play and it speaks to his competitiveness and determination. Smart would be a perfect fit on a lottery team who already has a scorer, and a team like Sacramento could be the perfect home where his lead-by-example grit could be a major influence.
Aaron Gordon, F, Arizona -- Gordon is another player swallowed whole by the hype machine. He doesn't get a ton of touches on a loaded Arizona team, but when he's been aggressive, it's paid off for him. Against Arizona State, Gordon was getting into the paint and finishing. His 16 points and six rebounds were a big reason why Arizona coasted to a win.
There's just no in-between game for Gordon right now. He's a guy who gets his points of dunks in transition and slip passes. He can make threes and has decent form on his shot, but has trouble creating offense for himself.
Tyler Ennis, PG, Syracuse -- Twitter buzzed after Syracuse beat Pitt with talk of Jim Boeheim's freshman point guard who has announced himself to the college basketball world in the last month or so.
Ive never seen a freshman PG as cool as Tyler Ennis — just dominant— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) January 18, 2014
Ennis has been unflappable, showing a Chris Paul-like ability to distribute the ball to his teammates, while coming up with every big basket when his team needs a bucket.
He scored on back-to-back possession to salt the game away Saturday against Pitt, and has been extremely efficient in the halfcourt offense. His 11.9 point average per game doesn't tell the whole story because he only scores when he has to, but he's shooting 40 percent from deep and dishes out 5.5 assists per game, along with 2.7 thefts. If he were a little taller, he'd be a lottery lock ... by season's end, he might be as it is.
Gary Harris, SG, Michigan State -- Harris may be scoring his way back up draft boards now that's healthy. The shooting numbers remain underwhelming -- He's 3 of his last 18 from deep in three games -- but Harris has gone to the free throw line 10 or more times twice in his last three games, and has been slashing his way to the bucket with greater frequency.
The shots will start to fall, assuming Harris can get his shot selection under a little better control, but Harris has always rebounded his position well and defends with tenacity. For a player who shot 41.1 percent from three last year, NBA teams may give Harris the benefit of the doubt going forward, or they may be left to wonder which shooter is the real Gary Harris. How teams answer that question could go a long way in determining his draft stock.
Andrew Harrison, G, Kentucky -- The more lauded of the Harrison Kentucky twins, Andrew has likewise been the more disappointing of the pair. But at 6-foot-6, it's possible, as Jonathan Givony posits, perhaps Harrison just isn't a point guard.
Solid game for Andrew Harrison. Finally starting to find his scoring touch. Has he been miscast as a PG?Just not his mentality to distribute— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) January 18, 2014
After dropping 26 points on Tennessee shooting 7-of-13 from the floor and going a perfect 10-10 from the line, Harrison showed chops as a scorer. That's not to say he can't be a playmaker in the mold of Brandon Knight, who can score and distribute and at his size, he can certainly guard both backcourt positions.
Games to watch
Monday, Jan. 20 -- No. 24 Baylor vs. No. 8 Kansas
After the dominant displays over the past few weeks, Joel Embiid faces his biggest test with Baylor's 7-footer Isaiah Austin, a potential first-round pick in his own right. Cory Jefferson, a versatile 6-foot-9 forward for the Bears is active on the glass and leads the team in scoring. Wiggins could draw that defensive assignment. And against a towering Baylor frontline, we'll see if Wiggins brings the type of aggressiveness that he brought to the Iowa State game, or the passivity he displayed against Oklahoma State.
Saturday Jan. 25 -- Michigan vs. No. 4 Michigan State
A rivalry game with major Big Ten implications also features a host of NBA prospects. Gary Harris leads the group for Sparty against Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Michigan. Adreian Payne may or may not play in this game, which would load more of the scoring burden on Harris and Keith Appling for Michigan State. These marquee games represent critical opportunities for players like Harris to solidify their lottery status, while giving GRIII and Stauskas the platform to catapult up draft boards. Robinson, in particular, has been inconsistent for Blue, which makes every opportunity down the stretch even more crucial for his NBA prospects.