With Embiid leaving, Jayhawk fans left to ponder ‘what if’

Joel Embiid's legacy at Kansas is that we'll never fully grasp what could have been.

Reese Strickland/Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

LAWRENCE, Kan. — In an alternate universe, somewhere, there’s a banner hanging from the rafters of some alternate Allen Fieldhouse with Joel Embiid’s name and number on it.

In this alternate timeline, the 7-footer from Cameroon becomes Kansas’ career shot-block king, leading the Jayhawks to two Final Fours and an Elite Eight before turning pro. In this alternate reality, JoJo sits alongside Clyde Lovellette, Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning in the pantheon of iconic KU big men.

But this is our reality. Our universe.

And in our universe, the Jayhawk chapter of Embiid’s basketball story is now officially over.

"I really love this place," Embiid said Wednesday at the Phog, just after he declared that he was leaving it.

The freshman center announced that, as expected, he’s declaring for June’s NBA Draft after only one season in Lawrence. A season of what-ifs and if-onlys that got cut short because of a stress fracture in his lower back.

"I personally thought he couldn’t make a bad decision," coach Bill Self said. "I don’t think anybody could say Jo made a poor decision by entering the draft."

Go with the head, or go with the heart? Embiid — who averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in just 28 games as a collegian — sounded just as torn Wednesday as he has for the past few months. Unlike classmate Andrew Wiggins, the African didn’t turn up in Lawrence with one eye on jumping to the pros — his rapid ascent up NBA draft boards just a few months into his inaugural college season was as much a surprise to him as it was to Self.

As of Wednesday, the 20-year-old was projected as the No. 2 pick overall (to the 76ers) by DraftExpress.com and No. 1 (to the Bucks) by NBADraft.net.

"I think it’s going to be hard; I think Jo’s in for a fight," Self said. "But I think it’s going to be a fun fight."

Self said it was a safe choice, and probably the right one, financially, given Embiid’s soaring pro stock and mercurial health. Despite persistent back issues that date to his high school days, the Cameroon native is, by consensus opinion, one of the top five prospects in the upcoming draft.

A Yahoo! Sports report indicated Embiid’s mind was made up in late March, but the ex-Jayhawk said the choice was made just this past Sunday after consultation with his family, Nicolas Batum of the Portland Trail Blazers, and his mentor, current Minnesota Timberwolves forward Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute, a fellow Cameroonian, "discovered" the KU freshman at a camp in Africa roughly four years ago.

"I just felt comfortable and always talked to him," Embiid said of Mbah a Moute, "always had trust in him."

Embiid even got an audience with Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, his basketball hero, a man whose moves he famously copied and melded into his own game — including, most notably, the Dream Shake.

"I don’t even remember what he was saying, I was so excited," Embiid said. "I was like, ‘Yeah.’"

With that, the big man flashed that big Embiid grin.

"I mean, they didn’t tell me what to do," he noted. "I think they just gave me the advantages or disadvantages."

In a battle between the head and the heart, ultimately, the head won out.

"I think he wanted to come back," Self said. "He wanted to come back. If college was paying $5 million a year and the NBA was paying $5 million a year, there’s no question what he would have done. But I think the financial opportunity was too great."

Early-entry prospects have until April 27 to formally declare for the 2014 NBA Draft. The NCAA’s deadline for early-entry withdrawal notification is next Tuesday.

The former KU big man hasn’t played since the Jayhawks’ 72-65 loss at Oklahoma State on March 1, during which Embiid fell awkwardly along the baseline, reinjuring his back in the process.

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The injury was diagnosed as a stress fracture — a problem that first became visually apparent during a win at TCU on Jan. 25, and one that might date back more than a year. The center’s high school coach, Justin Harden from The Rock school in Gainesville, Fla., told FOXSportsKansasCity.com last month that the freshman also experienced back pain at the end of the 2012-13 season as well.

Without Embiid — one of the best rim protectors in college basketball — patrolling the paint, KU flamed out quickly in the NCAA Tournament, losing to 10th-seed Stanford in the third round at St. Louis, 70-67, on March 23. Embiid said he returned to practicing recently and that the bad back wasn’t a factor in his decision to make the NBA jump.

"He’s moving around now," Self said, "just like he did two months ago."

It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s just … over.

Embiid never got to play in a Big 12 tournament. Or the Big Dance. We’ll never know how far the Jayhawks’ train might have rolled through one of the wildest NCAA tourneys ever. We’ll never know what kind of improvements he might have made under Self as a sophomore or junior, what heights he might’ve reached, what records might’ve fallen.

Self joked after Wednesday’s news conference that he’d hoped Embiid would at least learn to drive a car before leaving KU. As they took questions from local reporters, the big lug shocked his now former coach by mentioning that he had.

Which led to this exchange:

SELF: You learned to drive?


SELF: Do you have your license?

EMBIID (smiling): No.

SELF (also smiling): Great. I’m sure it was on a country road, so that nobody was in in harm’s way.

But we’ll never really know for sure, will we? Never quite grasp what could have been.

"So I think, in a lot of people’s minds, you could say, (it was) incomplete," Self said.

For Embiid, gone in a blink, that’s the legacy. For better or worse, that’s what we’ll remember most.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.