LAWRENCE, Kan. -- It was clear in the preseason, if you spoke with anybody on the Kansas staff, that Bill Self and his assistants believed they had something special in Joel Embiid.
The freshman big was getting a fraction of the attention reserved for Andrew Wiggins.
But his so-called ceiling, they quietly insisted, was just as high.
Perhaps even higher.
I realized this for the first time in late September when I attended a KU practice while in town. I returned home still intrigued by Wiggins, of course, for all of the obvious reasons. But the lasting image from that trip was one of Embiid -- alone on the court, perfecting post moves, smiling when his coaches instructed him to show me his Dream Shake.
Everything Embiid did seemed so natural.
I knew this 19-year-old Cameroonian had only been playing basketball for a few years, but I remember telling somebody that you'd never think that by watching Embiid move around a court, shoot or do pretty much anything related to basketball. His accent was thick, sure. But outside of that he seemed like somebody who had been training with elite-level coaches in this country for his entire life, and it was remarkable to witness up close.
"You're going to be the No. 1 pick," is what Self told Embiid "as soon as he stepped on campus," Self recalled Saturday after his 15th-ranked Jayhawks held-on for an 80-78 victory over ninth-ranked Oklahoma State here at a soldout Allen Fieldhouse that hosted 28 NBA scouts (plus Super Bowl MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers), and the interesting thing about that quote is that without context it's misleading and with context it's proof that Embiid is progressing faster than the coaches who knew and loved him best ever even imagined.
Let me explain.
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. The 7-foot big finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks in Saturday's win that doubled as the Jayhawks' fourth straight over a top-40 RPI opponent, and it's now undeniable that Embiid is the biggest threat to supplant Wiggins as the projected No. 1 pick of the 2014 NBA Draft.
"I mean, goodness, he's so talented," said OSU coach Travis Ford. "He's so good."
Ford should know thanks to a courtside seat that let him watch Embiid impact the game in many ways. Embiid blocked and discouraged shots. He threw lobs and caught lobs. He played a season-high 32 minutes, then explained his approach for the assembled media.
"I always have the same mindset," Embiid said. "Just do my job."
There's no sense in Embiid changing that mindset now that he's doing his job so well, and the scariest thing for the rest of the Big 12 is that he's likely to get better. Also scary: KU just beat a consensus top-10 opponent while getting a combined nine points from its two leading scorers, meaning the Jayhawks weren't clicking to their potential even when they built a 19-point lead late in a first half that featured three technical fouls and one scuffle.
"[Oklahoma State] did a lot of talking and shoving and stuff like that," said Kansas junior Naadir Tharpe, who was 7-of-8 from the field and finished with a team-high 21 points and six assists. "We came back and we just attacked them, and that's what we needed to do."
As you can tell by the final score, OSU also did some attacking in the second half. Phil Forte hit one big jumper after another and finished with 23 points. Le'Bryan Nash, at least in theory, could've had a shot at the buzzer to win it if he'd only gotten a shot off. But the bottom line is still the bottom line, and the bottom line here is that KU won, OSU lost, and Embiid enhanced his NBA reputation in front of a fieldhouse full of NBA scouts.
It really was something to watch. Embiid's path to stardom was supposed to take two or three years -- not two or three months. But here we are, middle of January of his freshman season, and college basketball does not have a prospect wowing scouts more regularly.