Joel Embiid's Journey To One Of The NBA's Most Dominant Big Men

Joel Embiid's Journey To One Of The NBA's Most Dominant Big Men

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 12:42 p.m. ET

Oct 26, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid walks from the dressing room for warmups against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid has taken the NBA by storm this season, but how he got here is even more impressive. We look back at his journey to the Association

The year was 2009, the location Yaoundè, Cameroon. 15-year old Joel Hans Embiid picked up a basketball for the first time, totally unaware of just how far it would take him.

A volleyball player for the majority of his childhood, Embiid had never considered basketball until he discovered Hakeem Olajuwon.  Inspired by his grace and elegance on the court, Joel decided he’d give hoops a shot, and the journey began.


Embiid was always a raw product, even in his days at Kansas. This first manifested itself when he began to participate in various basketball camps held in the local Yaoundè area. Because he was so unacquainted with the game, he’d frequently bounce the ball off his foot, trip over a screen, and allow passes to slip right through his hands.

But even without the necessary polish, Embiid was impossible to ignore. His uncanny footwork, quickness, outside jump shot and shot-blocking were something to behold. Even at the ripe age of 15, the Cameroonian offered a skill set so seldom seen in players his size that he couldn’t help but draw comparisons to his idol, Mr. Olajuwon.

And it just so happened that while holding one of his Cameroonian basketball clinics, fellow countrymen and NBA player Luc Richard Mbah a Moute picked up on the aforementioned talents.  Blown away by the immeasurable potential, Mbah a Moute became Embiid’s mentor. Under his guidance, Joel made the life changing decision to move to the United States to pursue basketball.

Just a year removed from having his sights set on becoming a professional volleyball player in Europe, Embiid now found himself halfway across the globe, immersing himself in a language he didn’t speak, all to pursue a professional career in a sport he still barely knew.

The High School Days

Joel Embiid’s first year playing for Montverde Academy was still peppered with the nooks and crannies that took place back in Cameroon. His first coach, Kevin Boyle, admitted that Embiid’s teammates got a good laugh out of his first informal practice. His unpolished, and sometimes even klutzy, play stood out when he was around his his high school teammates, most of whom had been polishing their game for the better part of a decade.

Boyle then went on to gather his players at center court and told them “Laugh all you want, but in five years you’re going to be asking him for a loan, because he’s going to be worth about $50 million.  You have no idea how good that kid is going to be.”  He knew he had unearthed a gem.

However, Montverde wasn’t the place where he’d leave his mark, as a lack of playing time resulted in the decision to transfer. In retrospect, it was probably the right choice. The only way for any player to see strides in his development and perfect the fundamentals is through experience, something he wasn’t getting much of at Montverde.

By 2012, Embiid was touted as a five-star recruit. He committed to Kansas, one of the country’s recruiting powerhouses, the fall before his final high school season.

Kansas head coach Bill Self

Coming Into His Own

And in his senior season, the player once praised for his potential alone finally began to tap into it.  That year he was a key figure in The Rock School’s 33-4 record and eventual state championship.  Embiid averaged 13 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks that campaign.

He had seen significant improvement in fundamental areas of the game, but still struggled in perhaps the most difficult aspect, defending without fouling, hence the deflated statistics.

Joel Embiid was one of the most highly-acclaimed center prospects in the last decade, but when fall rolled around and Embiid had arrived at Kansas, he was mostly an afterthought. After all, Kansas had just lured the country’s top recruit to come to their school, the player deemed the next LeBron, Andrew Wiggins.

Jaunty Jawhawk

By the time the season rolled around, it became clear that there was more than one lottery pick in Kansas’ latest recruiting class. It was a foregone conclusion at the season’s inception that Wiggins would be the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.

But the more time that the Kansas coaching staff had to work with their players at practice and in games, they were forced to admit the Cameroon native had just as good a chance of encountering that same fate as Wiggins did.

The Jayhawks floor spacing, and inside-out attack was of great assistance to Embiid. The 2013-14 college season was his most successful yet in terms of development. He still struggled with foul trouble, though, which limited his minutes to only 23 a night. But per 36 minutes (the standard for any NBA starter), Joel averaged 18 points, 13 rebounds and over four blocks. The player who, four years ago, barely knew what basketball was, had taken the country by storm.

And it wasn’t just the numbers that blew people away, it was the raw ability. Embiid put on nightly clinics on how to operate in the post. In a day and age where guards rule, Embiid was brining back the mobile big man.

But a stress fracture in his back cost him his NCAA Tournament that year, which was the first domino in a series of unlucky breaks.

Embed takes in the atmosphere at the raucous Allen Fieldhouse as a Jayhawk.

The Draft

Joel Embiid declared for the draft in early April, and bar anything unforeseen, was a lock for the top-three. His back was healing right on schedule, and after a few workouts with the Cavaliers, experts were tentatively predicting them to select him with the first overall pick.

But just days before the draft, Joel underwent foot surgery to repair a navicular bone in his right foot. It was a surgery that hadn’t been particularly kind to big men. Many never fully have their speed and agility return. Embiid was now being branded as an injury-prone big man, whose inability to stay healthy would cost him a productive career, queue Greg Oden.

Still shaken from the Anthony Bennett catastrophe two years prior, the Cavs weren’t willing to take such a risk. They opted to go with the safer pick, Embiid’s teammate, Andrew Wiggins.

The Bucks at No. 2 always had their sights set on Jabari Parker, and Joel was taken at No. 3 by Philadelphia.

Dec 15, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Injured Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (left) talks with general manager and president Sam Hinkie (right) before a game against the Boston Celtics at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Overcoming Obstacles

His June surgery just wouldn’t go away, however, and he was forced to miss the entirety of the 2014-15 season. But things only got worse after Joel finally recovered to briefly participate in the NBA’s summer league.

There were complications with his originally surgery, forcing him into yet another one. Sixers insiders and staff were genuinely concerned that this setback was a career threatening one. He could officially be categorized with Greg Oden.

He eventually recovered setback free, and by the time the preseason rolled around, he was set to go. In a few brief cameos, he reminded us just why we were so high on him to begin with. His footwork, grace, rim protection, and quickness left us praying that he wouldn’t suffer the same fate as Oden.

The impressive preseason showing lead to some lofty regular season expectations. Despite the cluttered Sixers front court, Joel was the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Year. And yet, he’s still somehow shattered expectations.

NBA Journey Begins

The Sixers organization made the decision to put Joel Embiid on a minutes restriction this season. And, given the nature of the situation, it was the right long term decision. But in the short term, it’s done nothing to retract from him unbelievable play.

In only 25 minutes per night, he’s averaged over 19 points, over seven rebounds, and almost three rejections. Per 36, that’s over 27 points, 10 rebounds and almost 4 blocks. For comparison, Olajuwon put up 21 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks per 36 in his rookie year.

Embiid’s other-worldly play hasn’t resulted in wins for Philadelphia, as they’ve only won 9 in 34 tries. But upon the return of incoming #1 pick Ben Simmons, the two should form a dynamic tandem and install a winning culture in the City of Brotherly Love.

And as he stepped up to the free throw line to drill a pair against the Timberwolves in front of a charged-up Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday, his signature slogan rang all throughout the building; “trust the process!”  And why not?  It’s taken him this far.

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