KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas freshman Joel Embiid is entering the NBA draft after a breakthrough season that ended with a stress fracture in his back that kept the 7-footer out of the NCAA tournament.
Embiid had been mulling whether to return for his sophomore season for weeks. He said during a news conference Wednesday at Allen Fieldhouse that he reached his decision Sunday.
"I just want to thank the coaching staff, my teammates, the fans, my mentor, everybody that has helped me through my journey," said Embiid, who was accompanied by coach Bill Self.
Embiid, who some believe could go first overall, said he discussed his decision with Self, his family and the Timberwolves’ Luc Mbah a Moute, a fellow Cameroonian who discovered Embiid at one of his camps and helped bring him to the U.S. when he was in high school.
"Hakeem Olajuwon called me and I talked to him a little bit. I talked to Luc, my mentor. I talked to Nicolas Batum from the Portland Trail Blazers," Embiid said. "They didn’t tell me what to do, they just gave me the advantages and disadvantages."
Embiid, who grew up playing soccer and volleyball, only decided to pursue basketball a few years ago. He started to blossom as a senior at The Rock School and ultimately chose to attend Kansas, where he arrived with less fanfare than fellow freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden.
In many ways, Embiid out-performed both of them, averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds while blocking 72 shots and earning Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.
"I don’t think anybody could say Jo was making a poor decision by entering the draft," Self said. "Under almost all circumstances this would be the obvious choice to make. The thing with Jo, what he was weighing was he’s still so young in the sport."
Still young, period. And that youthful exuberance endeared him to Kansas fans.
"I really love this place. The fans are crazy, just watching them before every game," he said. "For me, it means a lot that they showed me nothing but love. I’ll miss this place."
Embiid hurt his back while landing awkwardly during a game late in the season, and missed the Jayhawks’ final two regular-season games and the Big 12 tournament. He also missed a victory over Eastern Kentucky and a season-ending loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, after which he said that he would have been able to play had Kansas advanced to the second weekend.
"My back is fine," Embiid said Wednesday. "I’m close to being 100 percent."
Even though he is still raw, many projects have Embiid joining Wiggins in going among the first three picks in the June draft. Embiid’s natural athleticism, court savvy and an ability to hit mid-range jumpers have made scouts salivate all season.
"I think it’s going to be hard. I think Jo’s in for a fight. But I think it’s going to be a fun fight," Self said. "The jump from college to the NBA is not quite as easy as what a lot of people portray it to be. Just because you’re drafted high doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready to play. Jo’s goal obviously is not only to be drafted high but be a big-time player."
Self has already signed two five-star prospects for next season in Kelly Oubre, a talented swingman who should help fill Wiggins’ shoes, and Cliff Alexander, a 6-foot-8 forward from Chicago and the Naismith high school player of the year.
The question now is whether another five-star prospect, Myles Turner, will join them in Lawrence. The 6-11 center from Euless, Texas, is expected to pick among Kansas, Duke and several other schools, but has said he was waiting on Embiid’s decision before choosing his school. Alexander tweeted at Turner to sign with Kansas shortly after Embiid’s announcement.
Either way, the newcomers will join a team that returns three starters who helped Kansas win its 10th straight Big 12 title and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"Andrew was easy, because we knew before Andrew got here what the situation more than likely was going to be. Jo, it wasn’t quite that," Self said. "What makes it tough is preparing when you don’t know that you’re going to lose. We’ve got good enough players in our program, we’ve said that all along. Our expectation, our goals won’t vary at all."