KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Joel Embiid is done for the regular season — and it isn’t the first time Kansas’ talented freshman center has had to cut his season short because of recurring back problems.
Embiid’s high school coach, Justin Harden at The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla., tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com that the native of Cameroon suffered from back flare-ups "at the end of (last) season.
"It was probably around this time last year. And in the spring, it hurt him even more."
The 7-footer is averaging 11.2 points, as well as a team-best 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, for the eighth-ranked Jayhawks. He holds the KU single-season record for blocks by a freshman (72) and is viewed by most pundits as a potential top-five NBA Draft selection — perhaps even the first overall pick — if he chooses to forgo his collegiate eligibility.
On the plus side, Harden said physicians last year told him the center’s recurring back issues were not "genetically predisposed, or anything bad, like herniated disks. When our doctors looked at it, they didn’t see anything.
"It’s one of those things where he’s so long, you put stress on those muscles at a different angle that shorter guys don’t. So you’re more susceptible to stretching and tweaking."
Embiid landed awkwardly Saturday night during a 72-65 loss at Oklahoma State with roughly 4 1/2 minutes left in the contest. The big man was then taken to an area adjacent to the court at Gallagher-Iba Arena to try to stretch out his back.
While the center was eventually cleared to return, Embiid seemed visibly slowed by the injury, one that had first appeared to nag him during a win at Texas Christian on Jan. 25 and forced him to miss the rematch with the Horned Frogs in Lawrence on Feb. 15.
With Embiid clearly hobbled, the host Cowboys were able to attack the paint, closing the game on a 12-4 run that included a layup by Kamari Murphy and two layups by Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart.
KU coach Bill Self announced this afternoon that Embiid would be shut down for the remaining two regular-season games on the Jayhawks’ schedule.
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"We’ve made a decision that since we are so close to the postseason, we will re-evaluate him on Sunday," Self said via an athletic department statement. "If the discomfort ceases, he should be able to practice on (March 10) and participate in the Big 12 championship (tournament)."
Harden said Embiid’s prior back issues at The Rock were "because of a lack of strength training in his core. That might be something that he’s going to have to dedicate himself to more.
"Hopefully, he’ll get it all straightened out. I don’t think it’s going to be anything that can’t be overcome."
The Jayhawks (22-7, 13-3 Big 12) host Texas Tech (15-16, 5-11) on Wednesday, which is Senior Night at Allen Fieldhouse and is expected to be the final appearance of freshman wing guard Andrew Wiggins — who has already hinted he’ll turn pro after this season — as a collegian at the Phog.
And now KU fans are wondering if they’ve seen the last of Embiid in action in Lawrence as well. The freshman scored 12 points and collected 13 rebounds, three blocks and four steals at home last Monday in an 83-75 win over Oklahoma, a victory that clinched at least a share of the Big 12 title.
"If he’s still having symptoms of tightness and soreness, then we will look at sitting him longer through the postseason conference tournament," Self’s statement continued, "but there is no reason why he should not be feeling much better by the NCAA tournament. The doctors feel that amount of time off should do him wonders for how he is feeling."
But as far as back pain goes, this wasn’t the first time. And unfortunately for Embiid — and his NBA future — it sounds as if it might not be the last.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.