Kansas' Joel Embiid a secret no more

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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Here's a list of the things that Joel Embiid can do, a sampling of the skills that have NBA scouts salivating over the Kansas big man: He can move his feet like a swift-footed guard, or the soccer player he once was.

He protects the rim better than anyone has in years -- yes, Anthony Davis included, according to one scout -- and has an almost intuitive knack for blocking shots.

He has soft hands and a soft touch.

He has great balance and grace, moving with ease and fluidity, lacking the stiffness or awkwardness that so many big men are saddled with.

He has a basketball IQ that can't be taught, a sixth sense of where to be when, even though he's been playing the game for only a handful of years.

Here's one thing Joel Embiid can't do:

He can't drive a car.

He's tried to learn at least four times, but every time the Cameroonian slides behind the wheel, he gets nervous, his heart racing to the point of a panic attack. The last time he tried, a few months ago now, he headed to a parking lot with a friend. Embiid started to drive around and then he spied a police car making a routine drive-by while patrolling the area.

"It wasn't good," Embiid said in his French-accented English. "I was like, 'What should I do?' I completely panicked. It was crazy."

The really crazy thing is Embiid's inability to operate a motor vehicle may impact what he does next season more than all of his abilities with a basketball.

The "other" Kansas freshman suddenly has become The Freshman in the country. Embiid's face wasn't on the preseason rookie class Mount Rushmore, but he's managed to not just chisel his way into the picture, but also pretty much cut everyone else out of the frame. Most draftniks, scouts and NBA GMs think that come June, Embiid -- not teammate Andrew Wiggins or Kentucky's Julius Randle or Arizona's Aaron Gordon or Duke's Jabari Parker -- will be the No. 1 pick.

If, that is, he's there.

Which is where the car comes in.

"One day I was talking to [Kansas head coach Bill Self] and I was like, 'Yeah, I don't even know how to drive yet.' Eating healthy. I don't know how to do that yet," Embiid said. "I don't know if I feel like I'm ready for all of this."

Now before Kansas fans start hyperventilating about the thought of Embiid and Cliff Alexander (ranked No. 3 on the ESPN100 list of recruits) on the same roster, Embiid didn't say he was coming back.

He just said he wasn't sure he was ready. Yet it's that bit of self-awareness that truly makes Embiid special and any prediction for his future a little more difficult. This isn't a kid raised on the dream of the NBA, who spent his childhood thinking about posterizing Kobe or trading high-fives with LeBron. He didn't travel the summer-league circuit since infancy, waiting to get noticed. Until a fateful intervention, the only pro career he could envision was "maybe Europe for volleyball."

I said to my wife, Cindy, the other morning, wouldn't it have been a shame if someone didn't see him over there?

--Kansas coach Bill Self

And now that the gilded path is unfolding underneath his size 17s, he'll approach it as he does everything -- deliberately and carefully.

Embiid has been researching big men lately. Not the way he used to, back when he was trying to learn the game and used tapes of Hakeem Olajuwon as video tutorials. No, he's been looking at the game's best and surveying their college tenures:

Olajuwon, three years; Tim Duncan, four; Shaquille O'Neal, two.

"I was curious because I want to be great, I want to be the best at my position one day," he said. "I'm trying to learn everything and what other people did. All of the great big men went to college at least two or three years. I think it's a big factor. I don't know if it will always work, but I think it's the best choice."

Embiid's cerebral approach to his future doesn't surprise his college coach one bit. Self says without hesitation or hyperbole that Embiid and Wiggins are easily the best two players he's coached at Kansas, but he's never met anyone quite like Embiid.

Part of it is his upbringing and his unlikely road to America, to college basketball, to Kansas and, perhaps, to NBA stardom.

Embiid grew up in Cameroon with his parents, younger brother and sister, playing soccer and volleyball.

Had former UCLA player Luc Richard Mbah a Moute not spied Embiid at a camp, Embiid probably never would have played basketball.

"I said to my wife, Cindy, the other morning, wouldn't it have been a shame if someone didn't see him over there?" Self said.

Embiid has been in the United States for a little more than two years, been in the limelight even less time. So he's not a bored American teenager or a jaded American sports star. The first time he walked into a packed Allen Fieldhouse, back when he was being recruited, he just put his head down, overwhelmed and even a little embarrassed at all the attention.

Now that the spotlight has finally found him, now that students want to chat with him in class and reporters want to tell his story, Embiid is remarkably unaffected. He's funny and engaging, refreshingly candid and unguarded.

For a kid who admits he is still trying to master English, he is perfectly comfortable talking to just about anyone about anything.

"He's the best," Self said. "He wants to know everything. He's so naïve, in a very innocent way. Like certain guys can be naïve to the ways of the world, but he's naïve about everything -- what to eat, everything."

But what really separates Embiid has nothing to do with his upbringing or his naïveté. It's his intangibles. Embiid is hardly the first big man to come to the United States by way of a limited career in Africa. Nor is he first with the lithe body of a runner packed into a 7-foot frame.

He does stand alone, however, in his innate sense of how to play the game. He's almost a savant. Two months ago, Embiid wasn't quite sure how to block shots. Now with little instruction, he's become frighteningly good at it. Against Oklahoma State, he swatted eight. He paired those with 13 points and 11 rebounds to make him the first Big 12 freshman to put up that kind of stat line in a game.

Self recalled an early-season scrimmage. The ball was tossed into the backcourt and both Wiggins and Embiid, who were on defense, chased after the loose ball. Wiggins wound up beating his man and so he brought the ball back up, a defender on him and the ball.

"So immediately when Wiggins is bringing it up, Joel goes and ball screens for Wiggins," Self said. "I stopped practice. I said, 'Jo, what made you do that?' He said, 'Coach, my man is over there so there's no way anybody can help on the ball screen.' This is like he'd been here a month. I'm going, what?"

Which is why NBA folks are practically giddy about Embiid. The league's two favorite words are "upside" and "potential," of which Embiid has both in limitless supply. Mix that in with his intelligence, though, and you have the making of a player who many think could be once-in-a-generation good.

When Embiid first got to Kansas, Self told him he believed he could be a No. 1 draft pick. At the time, Self meant eventually, as in maybe 2015, more than likely 2016.

Instead "eventually" has arrived a little early.

Asked what he intends to do about it all, Embiid at first says he doesn't want to think about next season. He wants to help his team win games, win a Big 12 championship and win a national championship. For someone still learning the English language, he has mastered the fine art of sports clichés.

But gently pressed to imagine himself in that place and lifestyle, Embiid shakes his head.

"I don't know," he said. "I think it would be too overwhelming for me right now. I'm not sure I'm ready."

Maybe if he could just learn to drive a car first.

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