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Like a Dream

March 24, 2014
March 24, 2014

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March 24, 2014

THE MAIL
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Like a Dream

No one has broken out more than Kansas's Joel Embiid, whose freshman season calls to mind Hakeem Olajuwon's—right down to the back injury. But the Jayhawks' Final Four aspirations still hinge on the 7-footer who began playing the game just four years ago

WHEN HE IS ALONE in his room in the Jayhawker Towers, Joel Embiid, the 7-foot center for Kansas, will plug his laptop into his flat screen TV and type a familiar name into YouTube. He'll scroll through the choices, click on one, then lie back on his bed and watch Hakeem Olajuwon unspool a repertoire of balletic spins, whipsaw pivots, indefensible dunks and nasty blocks.

This is an article from the March 24, 2014 issue Original Layout

When he was in high school, Embiid, 20, had an Olajuwon highlight DVD that he would sometimes watch on his computer as he drifted off to sleep, the Dream Shake dissolving into his dreamscape. These days he uses his iPhone to get a little Hakeem fix between classes or during a quiet moment in the locker room. Justin Harden, Embiid's coach last season at The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., noted the depth of Embiid's Olajuwon obsession on a trip home from a tournament in December 2012. While some of his teammates were watching the latest edition of Fast & Furious on their school-issued iPads, Embiid was absorbing It Changed Everything, an Olajuwon documentary he'd found online. Harden asked Embiid what he liked about the man whom many consider the most complete center to play in the NBA. "I don't know," said Embiid. "I just love the way he moves."

Anyone who has seen both men play in college can't miss the similarities: the graceful stride; the soft hands and touch; the fluid shooting form; the condorlike wingspan (Embiid's is 7'5"); the instinctive, almost freakish feel for the game; the quick mind and nimble feet. Embiid also shares a problematic trait with the young Olajuwon: a balky back. Like Olajuwon, who missed four early games because of back spasms that would plague him throughout his first season at Houston, Embiid hasn't played since a March 1 loss at Oklahoma State (four games) because of a stress fracture in his lower back. He will likely miss the early rounds of the NCAAs.

Embiid's Olajuwon infatuation began 3½ years ago, when he was living in his hometown of Yaounde, Cameroon. He was a towering soccer midfielder and a volleyball player who dreamed of spiking balls for a living in Europe. He had never heard of Olajuwon and had never played organized basketball. When he finally gave the game a try, at the urging of an uncle, he was 16 years old and 6'9". At his first practice his coach gave him the Olajuwon DVD and advised him to rehearse the moves and countermoves on it every day.

The DVD is long gone, lost in the shuffle of relocating between two Florida high schools and then to Lawrence. But the tutorials continue, thanks to YouTube and thanks to Kansas video coordinator Jeff Forbes, who compiled a 20-minute reel of Olajuwon for Embiid last summer. And, thanks most of all to teammate Andrew Wiggins's dad, Mitchell, who played with Olajuwon on the Rockets for four seasons. During his monthly visits to Lawrence, the former shooting guard Olajuwon called Wigman regales Andrew and Joel with stories of his good friend's quirks—"When Dream wanted the ball, he didn't say, 'Pass me the ball,' he'd say, 'Talk to me, man, talk to me!'" says Wiggins—and his dedication. "Olajuwon was the best I ever played with, but he practiced the way he played," says Wiggins. "He had a great work ethic, and he wanted to be great. I think Joel has the same tools."

But hard work and want-to are not the only attributes that have catapulted Embiid from the far side of the Atlantic to the top of many mock draft boards, while altering his hoops identity from Olajuwon disciple to potential Olajuwon heir. Coaches, scouts and analysts are dazzled by Embiid's Dream-like traits. "It's amazing how fast he has developed," says one Western Conference executive. "At the start of the season I thought he would develop into a good defender. Now he's throwing in left and right hooks and showing footwork it takes most big men years to develop." Even so, the exec thinks comparing Embiid with Olajuwon is "a little over the top. We're talking about one of the most diverse offensive centers of all time. But Embiid has the potential to be a force on both ends of the floor."

Kansas coach Bill Self understands how premature the Olajuwon comparisons can seem, especially since Embiid averaged just 11.2 points on 62.6% shooting as well as 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. "People think you're nuts if you compare Jo to Olajuwon, because right now he still hasn't learned to take his skill set to the game as much as he will," says the coach. "But if you watch the things that Hakeem did with his feet and you watch what Jo does with his feet.... Jo is a guy who could have 20 different moves into a drop step. He gets into them in different ways all the time. You don't see guys who can instinctively do things like that. He is just time away from knowing how to take it to the game."

With the benefit of all those highlight clips and two years of high-level high school ball, Embiid is "light years" ahead of Olajuwon as a college freshman on offense if not quite as good on defense, according to Reid Gettys, a Big 12 Network analyst who played with Olajuwon at Houston in the early 1980s. "Having said that," says Gettys, "I have never seen a player develop from one year to the next the way Hakeem did between his freshman and sophomore seasons."

Olajuwon, of course, went on to lead the Cougars to two straight national championship games before the Rockets made him the top draft pick in 1984. In his 18-year pro career he was a 12-time All-Star, the 1994 MVP and a two-time NBA champion. He is still the NBA's alltime leader in blocked shots. "I'm not predicting that Jo will have the same career that Olajuwon did," says Self. "I'm saying when you watch him, there's no way you can't think of Olajuwon."

EVEN MOST casual basketball fans know Olajuwon grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, developed quick feet and soft hands playing soccer and handball as a youth and took up basketball at 17. It's a story that closely parallels that of Embiid, who didn't hear it until after he came to the U.S. as a high school junior. Once he did, he says, "that's when I decided I wanted to be like [Olajuwon]."

By that time Embiid's path had taken another Dream-like turn: As with Olajuwon, whose move to the U.S. was facilitated by an American scout who saw him play in a tournament in Angola at the end of his senior year in high school, Embiid's fate hinged on an opportune encounter. Luc Mbah a Moute is also from Yaounde, and the Timberwolves' forward hosts an annual basketball camp there each year. In the summer of 2011, Mbah a Moute heard from one of his camp coaches that the oldest son of Thomas Embiid, a former pro handball player, was showing great promise in basketball although he'd only picked up the game six months earlier. After he watched Joel at one practice, Mbah a Moute invited Embiid to camp, where he was one of the top five performers. "I couldn't believe how easily the game came to him," says Mbah a Moute.

Before the camp had concluded, Mbah a Moute had convinced Thomas that Joel should continue his basketball development and education in the States. Mbah a Moute placed a call to his alma mater, Montverde (Fla.) Academy. A few months later Joel landed in Florida.

He joined a team that was brimming with D-I prospects, including Dakari Johnson, now a freshman at Kentucky, and Michael Frazier II and Kasey Hill, who are both at Florida. New to English and shy by nature, Embiid struggled to adjust to Americans' openness around campus. On the court, however, there was nothing demure about him. He was a ferocious, easily affronted competitor, another trait he shares with his idol.

Embiid's heated battles in the paint with the 7-foot, 250-pound Johnson and the similarly imposing Landry Nnoko (6'10", 250), who is now a sophomore at Clemson, never spilled into fights, but they came close. "Even when he was not yet at their level of play, Joel would not back down," says Montverde coach Kevin Boyle. "He was not going to have anybody, for lack of a better word, punk him on the court."

With such a loaded roster Embiid got most of his minutes on the jayvee team. Convinced his protégé needed a bigger role, Mbah a Moute arranged for Embiid to get a scholarship to The Rock School, a private Christian academy 84 miles away.

Self had been intrigued when he saw Embiid play summer ball with the Florida Rams, even though he was the fifth option on a team that included top recruits Brandon Greene, Chris Walker and Hill. But after Self watched a Rock practice that fall, he told assistant Norm Roberts to move Embiid to the top of the recruiting priority list because, he said, He'll be the best big man I've ever had.

Embiid chose Kansas over Florida and Texas, and set out trying to prove Self right. "Early on, Jo would preconceive what he wanted to do," says Roberts. "He wanted to catch it, he wanted to Dream Shake, then he wanted to up, then he wanted to under, then he wanted to shoot it. By that time he had either walked or gotten bumped off the block. We're like, No! Just catch it and go!"

Roberts explained that Olajuwon made his spins and dips and reversals because he had to: At 6'11", he was a little smaller than some centers he played against, and his moves were in the flow of the game. So Embiid exercised restraint—until he found an opportunity to deploy the Dream Shake in a home game. On a fast break against New Mexico on Dec. 14 he caught a failed alley-oop attempt on the left block. He dribbled twice to his left, then shimmied left, right, left. When his defender, 7-foot Alex Kirk, bit on the last shoulder dip, Embiid curled under the basket for a reverse layup. Roberts was thrilled. "That's the move you had to use, and you made it," he told Embiid. "It's all about taking what the defense gives you."

Embiid gets raves from most observers for his rim protection—his 72 blocks are a KU freshman record—but Self says he has been "a little disappointing" on defense. "He's not a Jeff Withey or Anthony Davis as far as timing," says Self, "but he potentially could get to that caliber. There's no reason he couldn't have 10 blocks in a game."

Sitting on the bleachers in Allen Fieldhouse after a February practice, Embiid admits he doesn't love defense as much as offense. "I'm seven feet, so I have to block shots and defend the pick-and-roll," he says. "I have to get better at those things." Also on his to-do list: learning to stay out of foul trouble. He leads the team in DQs (four) and got ejected from a game on Jan. 11 for hitting Kansas State's forward Nino Williams with a backhand to the face. "I wasn't being mature," he says.

Embiid speaks soft and low and sounds grown up, but he is a child at heart. He harbors a raging sweet tooth—"I don't think I could get through a day without chocolate," he says sheepishly—and confesses that he likes playing video games even more than watching Olajuwon clips. Teammates tease him about his French- and Bassa-inflected accent, but they tend to forget he hails from a land 7,000 miles away. That is, until he decides to yank their chains by making up a story about his life in Cameroon. A few months ago Embiid told his teammates he had killed a lion with a spear as part of his "tribal initiation." Though senior forward Tarik Black immediately swatted the tale down—"JoJo, that's a lie!" he declared—Embiid enjoyed the story so much, he took it to Twitter, where he apparently found some believers. "He's a big kid who just wants to have fun," says Black.

He also wants to eat. Around Lawrence, Embiid's appetite is renowned. Roberts tells of a team dinner at the Selfs' during which Embiid arranged 10 brownies on a plate, piled on four scoops of ice cream and then asked for whipped cream. After he took 10 minutes to methodically plow through that calorie load, Embiid asked Self's wife, Cindy, for a bag so he could take 10 more brownies back to his dorm. In a more recent double-figure performance witnessed by Self, Embiid downed 10 cobs of sweet corn in a sitting, all while gushing, "Oh, I love this. I never get to eat this!"

Embiid says he can't believe all that's become available to him in the last year. "I came over here thinking I would just get an education," he says. "I didn't think I was going to be that good at basketball. I'm not even that good yet." To go from relative unknown to prospective top draft pick in the space of a few months, he adds, "is overwhelming."

Embiid's study of the great centers includes how long they've stayed in school. He has wondered out loud if he's ready to leave after one year. As he asked Self recently, "Coach, shouldn't I learn how to drive a car before I live on my own?"

Whether he stays or goes, the next Olajuwon talk will stick with him. It's a weighty mantle: Others tagged with it—Tito Horford, Emeka Okafor, Hasheem Thabeet, to name a few—weren't able to live up to it. But at least one person thinks Embiid could be the one. "Joel's got a chance to be the guy who, at the end of his career, people will say the comparison was fair," says Mitchell Wiggins. "It's a long road because Hakeem had everything. He had no weaknesses." Wiggins pauses, then adds, laughing, "As he always said."

Embiid seems eager to take on that challenge. Asked his basketball goals, he says, "Reach my ceiling. Go to the NBA and dominate. Be one of the greats."

When Roberts learned of Embiid's reverence for Olajuwon last summer, he made some calls to try to arrange a meeting. But after Dwight Howard signed, the Rockets hired Olajuwon as a full-time development assistant, and the big man can no longer talk to or about college players. So Embiid will have to wait for the advanced Dream studies.

In the meantime Embiid watches clips, then spins and fakes and pirouettes on the floor after practice. He has even started to entertain the idea that, someday, he might have his own signature move. "I've thought about it, but I don't really know what to do, because I feel like all the moves have been done," he says. "Sometimes, after I work out, I'll be by myself and I'll try to create something, but nothing has worked yet."

No doubt he is just time away.

"I'm not predicting Jo will have the same career that Olajuwon did," says Self. "I'm saying there's no way you can't think of Olajuwon."

THE BRACKETS 32

BREAKOUT PLAYERS 36

5-MINUTE GUIDE 52

BREANNA STEWART 56

ZONE DEFENSE 62

Casey Prather, 6'6" senior SF, Florida

From the season opener it was clear that Prather was a different player. He scored a career-high 28 points (he'd never cracked 20 before) while using 33% of Florida's possessions. "I'm just trying to be as aggressive as I can," he said. The 6'6" senior needed to learn he was a slasher, not a jump shooter: He takes 57.6% of his shots at the rim, best among Gators starters according to hoop-math.com. Prather's newfound assertiveness—and team-high 14.2 points a game—could propel No. 1 seed Florida to the Final Four.

276

Points in Prather's first three seasons. He has 454 in 2013--14.

Marcus Paige, 6'1" sophomore PG, North Carolina

How will Paige's sophomore season be remembered? By the awards? He's collecting plenty: ACC most improved player, first-team all-conference, second-team All-America. Or by his spectacular plays? Against Duke, Paige blew by 6'8" Rodney Hood and scored on an acrobatic layup. Against N.C. State, with the Tar Heels down 11 early, the 6'1", 175-pound Paige stole a baseline pass by leaping toward (and later crashing on) the scorer's table and slinging the ball inbounds, setting up a transition dunk. Then, in overtime, he laid in the game-winner. But most important, Paige led his team out of a haze of early season suspensions and inconsistent play. Really, he made UNC's season memorable.

35.6

Average minutes for Paige, the most for a Tar Heel since '03--04.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDBALL HAWK Embiid set the Jayhawks' freshman record for blocks with 72 in 28 games, but he still has a lot to learn before he becomes an elite defender.PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (EMBIID)DISCIPLINED DISCIPLE After spending countless hours watching and mimicking his idol's whirling moves, Embiid has begun to understand how to use them in game situations.PHOTORICHARD MACKSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (OLAJUWON)PHOTOJIM DEDMON/ICON SMIPHOTODANIEL SHIREY/USA TODAY SPORTS